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Believe it or not, coronavirus could be the best thing to ever happen to cinema


By Tom Jarvis, Founder and managing director

August 27, 2020 | 6 min read

Tom Jarvis, founder of the Wilderness Agency, believes that movie marketing is a relic of our analogue, VHS past. For better or worse, its reinvention comes now. Here’s how he would do it.


Imagine if Tesla spent millions of dollars selling you the chance to drive a car once. And then, three months later, spent the same money to sell you the same car, but this time you could take home and keep it.

Madness. But this is how movies are sold and promoted across the world.

It’s a relic of the advent of home video players, and an industry that didn’t want to relinquish control. So we have a situation where films are marketed in the cinema first and exclusively – the ‘theatrical window’ – and then resold via streaming/DVD some weeks later.

AMC and Universal in the US recently announced that they’re shortening the theatrical window from 75 to 17 days. But this is still 17 days when the cinemas can sit back and hope that punters come in, paying for the ‘experience’.

Some cinemas do have a great experience built-in. But many don’t. We’ve all experienced the sights, smells and prices of the local multiplex.

Films have been promoted in the same way for a century. We’ve been sold the ‘magic’ of cinema. But the standard experience of cinema hasn’t felt magical for many years. It’s time for a change.

All this makes me sound like I hate the cinema. I don’t – I love a great film in a great venue. I studied cinema for six years, worked in TV and film content and now work for some of the world’s biggest entertainment brands.

But both as a marketer and as a cinephile, the current situation is a disaster. And the Covid-19 crisis could accelerate the change that movie fans and theatres all over the world deserve.

It’s not about the $30 release of Mulan on Disney+ (which is apparently a one-off anyway). And it’s not about hoping that yet another blockbuster, plus popcorn, is enough to get people rushing back through the doors.

There should be no more theatrical window. Films should be released on all channels at the same time. Then studios might not churn out quite as many explosive thrillers/reductive superhero franchises. And cinemas can focus on getting people to actually, truly, want to be there.

But how will they do that, if you can watch the same film at home on the sofa?

It comes down to what really can be magical about the cinema – the experience of communal viewing.

But this doesn’t have to be a movie. It could be the finale of a hit TV show. Or the World Cup. Or the Olympics. It could be a classic film at the right time of year. Anything that can bring people together in a positive shared way.

The big multiplex cinema chains simply don’t react to events. Many of them don’t serve the communities around them. Many also have the privilege of being a ‘first run’ chain, which means they get the big releases before anyone else. So that’s the model they run with: get the big films in first and simply wait for customers. Meanwhile, the smaller chain and independents get the second and third runs, but work harder and more creatively to get people through the door.

The Glasgow Film Theatre’s festive screenings of It’s a Wonderful Life are an institution and sell out every year. The tiny Hippodrome cinema in the small Scottish town of Bo’ness, one of the world’s oldest cinemas, schedules silent film festivals with live music to bring people in. And, of course, Secret Cinema in London redefines that communal experience and even showed Stranger Things recently – not even a movie.

In fact, Secret Cinema is an important example. Some of the biggest innovations in cinematic events in recent years have come from events and hospitality. It’s not just about Secret Cinema. We’ve seen outdoor film screenings all over major cities and even the resurgence of drive-in movies. Huge screens in bars, on rooftops, at historic venues. Were the 2016 Olympics or the Euros or the World Cup the biggest recent cinematic events? You could watch these on huge screens in venues in any city with groups of like-minded fans.

These independent cinemas and venues do something that even the best algorithm can’t: they curate. It’s the same thing that great gig venues do. The Roundhouse in Camden, Rock City in Nottingham, Glasgow’s King Tuts. People remember their first time at these places because they carry cultural meaning and you are proud to return again and again. Most cinemas, unless your local is a hard-working independent, don’t have this cachet. Cinemas could be part of the rebirth of the town centre, of the high street, post-pandemic. But they need to change.

There are many in the cinema world who would like to suggest that sitting in the dark with a bucket of popcorn and 100 other people is a sort of quasi-religious experience. It isn’t. In fact, a lot of the time, a standard trip to the cinema can be disappointing. But a truly communal viewing experience can be life-affirming. Let’s level the playing field and give people a real reason to go back to the cinema.

Tom Jarvis is founder at Wilderness, which works for some of the world’s leading entertainment brands.

Last month, The Drum interviewed top cinema companies about how they are returning to business.

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