• Sun. Jul 14th, 2024

Movies about Movies: Why Can’t They Save Cinema?

ByToby Appleyard

Feb 20, 2023
Portrait of Steven Spielberg at a Comicon convention

Movies and cinema are terms that are often conflated. In reality, however, they are truly different. A movie is a series of static images shown at a specific frequency, creating the illusion of movement. It may tell a story, reveal a character, or perhaps portray a conflict. Cinema, on the other hand, is a communal experience. It involves a group of strangers coming together and getting lost in a world that isn’t theirs. 

However, in an age of streaming, of social media, and of instant gratification, the question arises: why should I leave the comfort of my home to buy a ticket at my local VUE when for the same price I could access literally thousands of movies from my sofa? 

Following the pandemic, this question has only moved closer to the forefront of public consciousness and, unfortunately the answer seems to be “I shouldn’t”. Ticket sales in the UK throughout 2022 were down 30% from 2019 (as per The Guardian) and cinema is struggling to cope.  Edinburgh lost its iconic Filmhouse, while big hitters like Cineworld and VUE have been forced into major restructuring.

What role, therefore, does cinema have in the twenty-first century? This is the question that filmmakers have sought to answer. In January alone, UK cinemas saw three films that offered responses to this very question: Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, and Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans

What’s notable about these films is how immensely different they are. Empire of Light, set in the south of England, follows the relationship between a white movie-theatre employee (the always fantastic Olivia Coleman) and her younger black colleague (the brilliant but under-praised Michael Ward); Babylon charts Hollywood’s transition from the silent film into the talkies, emphasising the destructive effect the business has on the psyche of its stars (Margo Robbie, Brad Pitt, and Diego Calva); while The Fabelmans is the semi-autobiographical story of Spielberg’s childhood and his love of movie-making. 

Despite these differences, a unified message emerges: not only is cinema important, it’s crucial. The Fabelmans shows how cinema can act as both a revelatory and connecting force that creates and protects memory. Similarly, Babylon emphasises how cinema immortalises emotion, whether wonder, joy, or sorrow. Empire of Light demonstrates the capacity for cinema to facilitate a combination of self-connection and joy, captured in a single scene so powerful it alone warrants Rodger Deakin’s Oscar nomination for cinematography. Clearly, we, the public, must return to cinemas in order ensure the continuation of its magic.

Ironically though, it is these movies which are failing to put bums in seats. Babylon made just $4.85 million on its opening weekend despite needing $250 million to turn a profit, The Fabelmans is already available to view at home in many countries (not, however, in the UK), and Sam Mendes has labelled his own film a box-office flop. It’s not as if they are bad films either, all of them feature a solid script (if occasionally slightly muddled in the case of Empire of Light), great cinematography and a stellar cast. Yet, these movies about cinema have failed to get people in the cinema. 

Perhaps, it’s that people go to the cinema in search of escapism, not for the self-indulgent passion projects of famed directors. Or it could be that these movies were ineffectively marketed, failing to break through the brick wall that social media. For cinema’s sake, I hope it’s the latter. The growing homogeneity of box-office smashes (I’m looking at you, Marvel) may provide the funds to keep cinema afloat, but it makes for a less interesting and less impactful experience. All that said, there is reason to be hopeful for the future of cinema: indie darling Aftersun is the highest-grossing British independent debut in over a decade, A24’s Everything Everywhere All at Once made 9 figures globally on a budget less than a quarter of that, while the blockbuster that is Top Gun Maverick brought in $1.5 billion. The desire to go to the cinema still exists, studios just need to learn how to tap into it – something which Empire of Light, The Fablemans, and Babylon failed to do.

Image Steven Spielberg” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

By Toby Appleyard

Toby Appleyard is a Film and TV Editor for The Student in his fourth year of an English Literature degree at the University of Edinburgh. He is interested in all things writing, be it creative fiction, creative non-fiction, drama, or journalism. He also has an unhealthy relationship with Letterboxd.