Something exceptionally grisly has just happened on screen and the 140 strong audience at the Genesis Cinema in London is loudly hooting and howling with equal parts laughter and disgust. There’ll be no spoilers here for Dashcam, the new found footage horror movie directed by Rob Savage that was allegedly banned (and then not) by Vue Cinemas recently, but it’s the reaction I’m here for; the outpouring of delighted shock and disbelief at the ludicrousness unfolding on screen. After a slightly depressing one person screening on my laptop a few months ago, the experience is incomparable. Watching with like-minded humans is like being wired into the movie itself; a fittingly Cronenbergian image for a horror-centric crowd.
In the audience sits the writer and executive producer of Dashcam, Jed Shepherd. He’s drinking in the gleeful live squeals of an engaged audience. For him, the cinema is the reason he does what he does. “The reason we grow up wanting to be filmmakers is so we can experience the transportation that only sitting in the dark with strangers can achieve,” he says (after the movie, we’re not horror monsters who talk in those whispered tones that really aren’t whispers).
“Watching Jurassic Park in the cinema as a kid, filled me with such wonder and excitement. I truly believed dinosaurs were really back and running amok. It truly changed me as a person. The power to conjure long extinct animals into reality feels like magic to me and this trick is best viewed on the biggest screen possible. Those dinosaurs were life-sized and I think that if I had watched it at home, on my 14” bedroom TV it wouldn’t have had the same WOW factor.”
But let’s face it, after an understandably rocky two years, cinema’s future hasn’t always been guaranteed. Entering a room packed full of other breathing humans wasn’t top of anyone’s list even after lockdowns were lifted. Without a shared big screen, people were suddenly upgrading their set-ups at home. Sales of 65-inch TVs were up 53% in the USA by the latter half of 2020 and surround sound was booming in more homes than ever. But, even if you’ve gone the whole hog and installed a cinema room, complete with cupholders, the experience just… isn’t the same. Aside from the lure of Twitter on your phone and the often unavoidable distractions of everyday life, a crowded cinema holds exclusive alchemy.
"Every time I go to the cinema I am reminded of the uniqueness of the experience,” explains writer, broadcaster, and film programmer Anna Bogutskaya. “It's not about the movie alone. It's about the space of the cinema itself, the place we're at when we sit down to watch the film, the people we're with, the strangers around us. No amount of high-def resolution will replace the feeling of being in a cinema, alone but surrounded by people. Going to the cinema reminds us that there is community to be found in film-loving."
And a significant chunk of the filmgoing public has just been reminded of precisely the magnetism to be found in the multiplex. Top Gun: Maverick has already cruised to $549 million in box office returns globally in two weeks, with Deadline’s Nancy Tartaglione declaring “If a sequel to a 36-year-old movie doing these kinds of numbers doesn’t scream the big screen is back when a movie delivers, then I’ll eat my Ray Bans.” This is an audience hungry for spectacle - not spectacles - in a room of equally giddy humans. Sure, we could wait for the inevitable premium Home Premiere rental - now arriving on VoD platforms faster than ever - but there’s no arguing with the figures flocking to cinemas to feel the need for speed.
It’s those feelings that are so vital and core to the experience. This is a transportive bubble of darkness where the best films carry us away. “A cinema acts to amplify the emotional impact of film, simply by virtue of the fact that you are sharing those emotions with others in front of the screen,” says Laura Perrachon, alternative programme manager at the independent Genesis Cinema. “Whether an audience is sharing laughter, chills, tears, political outrage or even just experiencing breath-taking art together, a cinema can bring communities and minds together, and create a feeling of immersion and belonging.”
The cinema experience too is evolving. As attractive as it is to see movies on IMAX screens the size of multiple double decker buses, it’s not always about quantity, it’s quality that matters. While the Genesis has a welcoming bar area and neons and art on brick walls, other cinemas are embracing customer comfort too to lure us back to the multiplex. Recliners now come as standard in many screens and the Everyman brand has embraced cosy sofas, cushions, and gin deliveries to your seat. Alternatively, if discomfort is your desire, you can always sign up for a rollercoaster-style 4DX showing and be sprayed with water, judder along with car chases, and be stabbed at just the right moment in horror movies. No, really, this year’s Scream was an experience. Regardless, whether we’re sipping cocktails or wishing we had a seatbelt, cinema still has a powerful hold.
The total figures are still down somewhat. Deadline reports a -31% difference in box office takings between the 22nd weekend of the year between 2022 and 2019, but this is largely down to caution on the part of studios who are releasing less movies and concentrating on one blockbuster at a time. If the reaction to Top Gun: Maverick is anything to go by, the return of Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum, and Laura Dern in this week’s Jurassic World: Dominion could be another example of the thirst to return to the multiplex. The power of Spielberg’s original might just be enough to bring people back for more of what Jed Shepherd so aptly described as ‘magic.’ “I know home cinema systems are getting bigger and more sophisticated,” he says. “But for me there’s nothing that can top watching your favourite film on 70mm - Technicolor as far as the eye can see, fully immersed in the world that the filmmaker has created.” Go on, grab your popcorn.
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