As the UK opened up from lockdown, 2021 was the year the film industry anxiously asked the big question: would we go back to the cinema? Looking back on the year in film, another question springs to mind: with cinemas imperilled, why is it so hard to find an original film in them?
Reboots and sequels dominated in horror (Halloween Kills, Candyman), action (The Suicide Squad, Godzilla vs Kong), and Disney’s ouroboric self-plunder (Cruella, Jungle Cruise). At the time of writing, 19 of the year’s top 20 films at the UK box office were based on existing intellectual property. The remaining film is the heavily referential, cameo-stuffed Free Guy.
Marvel remained the big fish, boosting its cultural capital by poaching directors from prestigious indie dramas. Black Widow, and Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings were followed by Eternals, with director Chloe Zhao banking the goodwill from Nomadland, her romantic portrait of peripatetic life. The middling reception of all three films brings to mind the old adage about cinema: the trouble with the business is that it’s an art, and the trouble with the art is that it’s a business. Though the equation is hardly balanced – each film netted over $100million in profit. December’s Spider-Man: No Way Home was marketed on the return of characters from films released 15 years ago, truly reflecting the contemporary blockbuster: nothing is ever really over, childhood never ends, and there is no escape.
The biggest film of the year was No Time to Die, a heavily deferred release that, at one point, threatened to shutter the UK’s second-biggest cinema chain for good. The recursive trends of the industry are mirrored in the film itself – James Bond is killed onscreen only for the credits to insist that he will return. Cash cows never die.
The film’s critical and commercial success will keep cinemas open for now, though the costs of the delay mean that it may not break even despite a $750 million box office taking. In any case, the fact that the industry was essentially banking its health on one film from a 60-year-old franchise hardly indicates a sustainable business model, let alone a vibrant hub of cultural production.
With the stop-start pattern of UK lockdowns, an already risk-averse industry – no longer able to rely on the DVD market – was put into further retreat from original programming. The underperformance of Tenet – 2020’s inter-lockdown tentpole release – spooked studios, and most of 2021’s biggest films were released simultaneously to cinemas and streaming platforms.
The situation is not helped by the massive centralisation of money and power to a few big players. There are monoliths like Disney, more dominant than ever after acquiring Pixar, LucasFilm, Marvel and 21st Century Fox, but also investment firms such as Vanguard, which owns the largest stakes in Disney and all of its biggest competitors. Such economics beget stagnation.
The logic has long been that, as long as the blockbusters make money, smaller, grown-up films can be saved a space at the multiplex. But with such precarity this year, original mid-budget films – even with famous names attached – struggled to reach the big screen. You’d have been lucky to find a cinema screening of such gems as Passing, The Green Knight, The Card Counter, The Mauritanian, and No Sudden Move, especially outside London. The relative success of Limbo – a wonderfully observed portrait of the UK’s asylum process made on a shoestring – felt like a miracle, possible only through a slew of well-deserved awards.
Streaming platforms provide a home for such films, but bring their own troubling issues. Netflix is shrinking its film catalogue to produce more of its own content – despite freefalling into billions of dollars of debt. Ad-free and relatively affordable, the Netflix business model makes sense if the goal is not distributing films but collecting user data: then what’s on screen is simply a means to that end. This leads to the constant flow of algorithmic ‘ambient’ content: largely unchallenging work that can be put into the background, begging your attention but repelling your interest.
Television has always been disposable, but the breakdown of distinct formats and consolidation of where to find them breeds homogeneity. In the meantime, the data collected about user habits – especially when integrated with data collected elsewhere online – is gold dust in the attention economy.
Beyond the multiplex, the UK has a thriving film culture in independent venues as well as community cinemas: village halls, community centres, and makeshift theatres have given a home to exciting programming. Audiences who can’t or won’t reach a chain cinema are given a chance to see smaller, DIY, queer, and foreign-language films in a collective and social experience. In 2019, such organisations numbered over 1,300. While the pandemic has stalled their growth, film societies and community cinemas offer a viewing experience that avoids both an onslaught of advertising and pernicious data collection.
The multiplex is an important part of the film industry, but its centrality threatens that industry’s future. Concentration of production and exhibition has a deadening impact on both programming and viewing behaviour, making a lot of money for the oligarchs but leaving the industry vulnerable in turn. Like many areas of life, neoliberalism has failed to invigorate cinema. Community spaces and networks are integral to a vibrant, forward-facing culture, so next year is a good time to seek out your local independent cinema and film club or, better yet, start one.
Joel Blackledge is a writer, filmmaker, and media lecturer.