Are we still in love with the cinema?

The decision to close down Gozo’s only cinema due to foreign studios imposing digital-only releases – and thus forcing local cinemas to undergo a costly conversion process – may have been the fatal blow, but the rot had set in years ago, as illegal downloads became the order of the day.

The closure of Gozo's Citadel Cinema begs the question: have our multiplexes been suffering in silence for a while now?
The closure of Gozo's Citadel Cinema begs the question: have our multiplexes been suffering in silence for a while now?

Perhaps it was inevitable, but when it did happen, it felt as though it came out of the blue.

On 31 March of this year, Gozo's Citadel Cinema - the island's only multiplex - was forced to go on indefinite hiatus. The reason: Hollywood studios have decided to stop releasing films on good-old-fashioned film reels, given that it's cheaper and easier to ship and distribute films on digital format.

Sadly, however, local cinemas by and large still operate on the old system, and will have to undergo a costly process in order to acquire the necessary digital equipment, of which Eden Cinemas only has two.

But although the hefty price of this necessary conversion is doubtlessly a hard pill to swallow, it would be equally difficult to deny that the rise of illegal internet downloads - be it of music, films or television series - will also have made a sizeable dent in the revenues generated by cinemas on a regular basis.

Apart from being able to watch films in their supposedly optimal state - darkened room, large screen, surround sound - cinemas would also be a film's first port of call: you would have to wait at least a handful of months until the said film reaches you on video or, more recently, DVD. Now, with all these barriers being broken down by the encroaching arrival of new technologies, the landscape is changing in a way that may just wipe out more conventional ways in which films are seen and distributed.

Think of what you're doing

It's very hard to keep track of illegal downloads - so much so that arresting anyone for downloading or streaming a film, or album illegally will always look arbitrary, as if the authorities just plucked their hands into a giant hat and pulled out the name of some poor unfortunate soul at random.

We can get away with it, and by and large it's considered to be a victimless crime, of sorts. But Simon De Cesare, General Manager of Eden Leisure Group (the force behind Eden Cinemas), is keen to point out a very direct economic and ethical implication of illegal downloads. When I asked him if he knew of any potential solutions to the problem of people choosing to download films to watch at home in favour of making a trip to the cinema, his response was doubly sad. For one, he confessed a certain degree of helplessness - "there is very little we can actually do to stop it..." - while believing that the only way we can parry this deluge is by 'educating the masses' (a sure-fire sign of desperation).

"I'm afraid that Maltese people don't seem to be aware of just how badly illegal downloads affect the local cinema industry... and the full implications of this situation going from bad to worse, as it has now. In very real terms, it means that people will lose jobs. It also means that people won't be able to watch a special-effects-laden blockbuster like Iron Man 3 in the way that it's truly meant to be seen..."

Feeling out for the light at the end of the tunnel, De Cesare is thankful that, at least, "our distribution dates are quite close to our UK counterparts, thanks to our distributors, KRS, who work very closely with the UK".

Another element that guarantees it's not all doom and gloom is the consistent, and apparently unflinching, success of large-scale blockbusters - like the big superhero movies such as Avengers Assemble and The Dark Knight, which have found as receptive an audience on local shores as they have internationally.

In and of themselves of course, these films are inevitable successes - now powered by 3D, they are based on secure corporate properties with an established storytelling mythology and are always guaranteed an audience.

But De Cesare laments that, "unfortunately the cinema can't survive from the first couple of weeks of blockbuster releases".

Iron Man 3

Eden Cinemas's Simon De Cesare: Blockbuster hits like Iron Man 3 are becoming local cinemas' only source of real income

And as everyone knows by now, it's not just cinemas that have been crippled by the endless possibilities for free entertainment presented by the internet. DVD rental shops, previously forced to battle with a more 'physical' manifestation of piracy - via the monti-sold copied CDs of freshly released films - are now facing a far more imminent threat... so much so that the black market CDs - which still cost at least something, and were usually of dismally poor quality - now appear to be rather quaint.

Grace Borg, owner of House of Grace (formerly Exotique) in Sliema, commented on the situation with characteristic aplomb, placing the blame squarely on the government for not acting quickly or effectively enough to dampen the effects of piracy on local businesses.

"At one point I've even thought about taking the government to the European Court of Justice over this. I didn't end up doing it because it would have been too expensive, but this is what the government truly deserves."

Borg also revealed that as of last month, House of Grace - which also sells clothes and video games - was forced to give up its DVD library, "estimated to be worth around €100,000" due to a lack of interest.

"It came to a point where it wasn't even feasible for me to employ one single person to take care of DVD sale and rental," Borg says.

"This is a situation we've been facing for years, so I can understand that cinemas are struggling too. The one good thing I can see emerging from this is that maybe now they will join the fight against piracy too, as before I was going at it pretty much alone, under the the Visual and Sound banner..."

Borg's resentment for the issue is palpable. She views the popularity of piracy as something that seems to signal a form of cultural degradation...

"Maltese people have no pride about what they watch and listen to. If you choose to deal in piracy, it means your standards are really low."

Another casualty of the online piracy revolution was Aldrin Cassar's Movie World - a DVD rental shop in Naxxar which attained something of cult following among local cineastes, as it came armed with a sizeable collection of foreign and arthouse films not usually stocked by other, more conventional shops - thus carving something of a niche for itself.

This, however, was hardly enough to compete with the allure of fast and free digital downloads, and Cassar was forced to close down the shop in September 2012.

"Online downloads weren't the only factor, though," Cassar says. "The fact that Region 1 DVDs were allowed to be imported from the USA was another stumbling block," he adds - a complaint often echoed by Grace Borg in the past.

Region 1 DVDs are traditionally restricted to America... which obviously means that they come out long before their Region 2 counterparts, which are especially made for Europe.

"But at the end of the day yes, it's the digital downloads that proved to be the main issue, to the point where I believe we're now fighting a lost cause. There can be no control over people downloading films."

Asked to possibly identify a point in time when things began to shift dramatically, Cassar, like Borg, suggests that the government is at least partly to blame.

"I think the biggest slap in the face came when the government really got behind the idea of everyone owning a computer, and of reducing the price of things like blank DVDs. I saw this unfolding over a span of four years."

For Cassar, the technological revolution has paved a one-way road.

"Honestly, with the way things are going I doubt there will be any DVD shops around at all for all that long. The move is towards legal online streaming portals, like Apple's Cloud, and Netflix... which have an international reach, and I don't think a small island like Malta can compete in this field, either."

"It will be a more technological world, and a more technological business."

Changing the environment

There could be several implications, as we move towards a 'more technological world'. The internet - by virtue of not just illegal downloads, but intertwined with the phenomenon of social networking - has perhaps led to some changes to the way we negotiate our social and cultural environment - of which cinemas have, historically, formed an integral part.

So perhaps the changing scenario vis-à-vis illegal downloads needs to be seen in this light: how do we move people out of their homes and back into the multiplexes?

Speaking for Eden Cinemas, Simon De Cesare once again mentions the big 'tentpole' blockbusters as a gift that keeps on giving... specifically, in this case, because well-known properties like superhero films, and, say, James Bond, can also serve as good jumping-off points to create event-based activities around the film, usually on the occasion of the film's premiere.

"We're realising more and more that event-based activities are important in this scenario. So on the occasion of the latest James Bond film, for example, we had an Aston Martin parked outside, and people dressed for the occasion," De Cesare says.

Despite his dedicated niche clientele - amassed thanks to his thousand-strong library of world and arthouse cinema, by virtue of Cassar's dedication to following international film festivals - he still felt that sustaining Movie World was unfeasible.

But what about non-mainstream films being screened in cinemas? To go by Simon De Cesare's assessment of the situation - that sure-fire blockbusters are the only reliable, if not lasting, source of income for a cinema - does this mean that the local scenario can forget foreign and independent films altogether? Or would this, in fact, be the perfect time for smaller, niche cinemas to ensnare a sizeable chunk of the moviegoing public and - like Aldrin Cassar's Movie World - take advantage of their unique status?

Managing Director of St James Cavalier Chris Gatt is not so sure, despite the fact that the St James Cinema makes it a point to present more off-beat choices to the local cinemagoer. "The fact is that less people are going to the cinema. If there's that kind of shrinkage in the market, that's bad news for everyone, no matter what films you're screening."

For Gatt, the issue is less about the foibles of new technologies, and far more intrinsic: culturally, we're just don't seem to want to make the effort to visit the cinema anymore (an argument echoed by Simon De Cesare, who succinctly describes the situation as chiefly concerning "comfort and laziness").

"The one thing that was positive about the whole Citadel Cinemas situation," Gatt says, "was the bit where they said they're considering the options of keeping some of their screens for private hire. I think this is going to be the future of cinemas - I can't say for sure, but it seems as though things are moving more in that direction..."

Gatt offers up another speculation: it could be that Malta is less amenable to cinema culture because... our houses are bigger.

"In most European countries, houses are, generally speaking, quite smaller. So gathering around a television to watch stuff isn't really an option - not to mention bringing your girlfriend or boyfriend over. So the teenage and young adult age group are kind of social nomads, and the cinema is the perfect place for them to escape in."

True or not, it may be worthwhile to pay attention to ways we experience our social space, and how that impacts on the way we imbibe cultural products and events.

Karsten Xuereb, Project Coordinator for V18 - the Foundation in charge of facilitating Malta's role as European Capital for Culture in 2018 - reassures that the foundation is keeping tabs on this.

"In our consideration of urban spaces, we're not excluding the private space of people's houses. From a purely research point of view, at this point we're simply curious to discover how this can contribute to the debate and preparation for Valletta 2018 and beyond," Xuereb says, thankfully offering up a few concrete examples.

"In other countries, you'll sometimes see gigs and theatrical productions taking place in people's houses, which would be opened up for the occasion... we have something of that in Malta during festa season, when people open up their houses to show off their decorative wares and so on. So perhaps we could start a conversation and get a few ideas going on those lines. When it comes to cinema in particular, it's all about a balancing act, really. We're working with entities like Media Desk Malta and Kinemastik to try and find ways to preserve the art form of cinema, and really take advantage of its communal aspect."

A technological world, a transitional world

In a commencement address to students at the University of Arts in Philadelphia last year, popular fantasy author Neil Gaiman suggested that his young audience should take heart at the fact that the nature of the creative world and popular media is currently in a dramatic state of flux.

"We're in a transitional world right now, if you're in any kind of artistic field, because the nature of distribution is changing, the models by which creators got their work out into the world, and got to keep a roof over their heads and buy sandwiches while they did that, are all changing... which is, on the one hand, intimidating, and on the other, immensely liberating," Gaiman rhapsodised.

"The rules, the assumptions, the now-we're supposed to's of how you get your work seen, and what you do then, are breaking down. The gatekeepers are leaving their gates. You can be as creative as you need to be to get your work seen. YouTube and the web (and whatever comes after YouTube and the web) can give you more people watching than old television ever did. The old rules are crumbling and nobody knows what the new rules are. So make up your own rules."

Encouraging words, to be sure - if you're a young artist who has just taken the plunge into a creative career and are happy with whatever you can get. But from an economic point of view, this kind of uncertainty is, of course, troubling - and arguably unsustainable.

Especially for an apparently 'dying' art form like the cinema - and especially in the case of Malta, whose audiences are by their very nature too tiny to generate enough revenue to keep the industry - be it cinema, or any other form of entertainment - afloat.

It's a shame, because it's not as though there isn't enough goodwill for cinema to go around.

After our phone conversation, in fact, Aldrin Cassar makes it a point to send me an impassioned SMS to round off what we've just been speaking about.

"One thing I'd like to say is that no matter what technological innovations in home entertainment become the order of the day, nothing beats the cinema experience. I still love movies, and even though I was forced to close my business, I make it a point to visit the cinema at least once a week." 

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Add to the list-- listening to some twat on his/her mobile 'phone and other irritating noises from the same.
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A major disincentive is that, while home theatre systems have improved by leaps and bounds, cinemas have not kept pace. The "normal" home entertainment has gone from a grainy, black and white TV with 3 channels to large, clear flat TVs or projectors with surround sound, a satellite system and blu-ray discs, a very comfortable sofa and microwave popcorn. The cinemas... well they got cleaner, and the overall clarity has improved. That's pretty much it. If you factor in the high price of tickets plus snacks and drinks, plus parking and so on, then having to sit in seats that are not always very comfortable and having to listen to the running commentary from some other patrons, and watching a film at home with your mates can be an attractive proposition. There no longer is the incentive there used to be to watch a film in a cinema.