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Adapt, survive, thrive: how the pandemic has changed the cinema experience

Tickets were at the ready, the popcorn freshly popped, when a sudden lockdown left Melbourne’s cinemas dark and empty.

But that doesn’t mean the party stopped.

Melbourne’s independent film community is refusing to give up, and is turning to streaming platforms instead.

It’s a spreading trend with the potential to change the future of how we go to the movies.

The 2021 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), which ran a few weeks ago, was delivered exclusively via their new online platform, MIFF Play.

MIFF programmer Kate Fitzpatrick says it was always part of the plan to have some digital delivery of films.

“After the success of 2020’s solely online festival program delivery, and in light of the ever-changing landscape due to Covid, MIFF had planned from the outset to include a digital offering as part of the 2021 festival,” she says.

“It is inevitable that MIFF Play will become a regular feature of the festival.

Adapt, survive, thrive: how the pandemic has changed the cinema experience

The seats are empty, but the cinema experience continues at home. Picture by Denise Jans /Unsplash

“It is a way for us to continually engage with a broader audience, both here and nationally, along with those who, for whatever reason, are unable to physically attend screenings in cinemas.”

Ms Fitzpatrick says that although the traditional bums-in-seats cinema experience isn’t feasible, moving the release of new films online can still bring people closer together, and MIFF’s adaption has gone down a treat.

“Patrons have been sharing their home viewing experiences via various social media channels, creating a virtual community response to the festival which, in the current lockdown, has very much warmed our hearts,” she says.

Of course, MIFF aren’t the only ones to overcome the pandemic problem by going digital, with independent cinemas in Melbourne also turning to the magic of the internet to stay relevant.

Lido Cinemas in Glenferrie and their sister cinemas across Victoria and New South Wales have created their own streaming platform called At Home.

Adapt, survive, thrive: how the pandemic has changed the cinema experience

Families can now enjoy many of the things they love about cinema from the comfort of their home. Picture by Spencer Gilder-Smith

According to the platform’s website: “At Home brings the spirit of Classic, Lido, Cameo or Ritz with you to your living room… [offering] everything from new and recent releases to hidden gems.”

Through At Home, these cinemas continue to offer a source of comfort for their patrons, going the extra mile by discounting a large selection of their films to as little as $3 each to bolster spirits during harsh lockdowns.

Lido Cinema assistant manager Hudson Sowada says the pandemic had forced the industry to adapt.

We had to think about ways that we could engage with our audience when we were shut down

“We had a period where we were selling choc-tops, popcorn and candy bar items out of our box office window for people watching movies at home. But (our streaming service) is a longer-term investment in building that community engagement.”

Mr Sowada says the Lido’s diverse selection of in-cinema titles is reflected in the At Home catalogue and includes a range of special features unique to the cinema.

“The program is heavily curated. It’s like going to the DVD store and asking someone for a recommendation,” he says.

Adapt, survive, thrive: how the pandemic has changed the cinema experience

Croydon Cinemas are among the hundreds of movie theatres forced to close by Covid. Picture by Kate Williams.

“You’re getting a similar type of experience where if you enjoy our program at the cinema, then you’re bound to enjoy, find similar tastes and quality films in that online programming.

“People can watch one of the films on the platform, see that there was a Q&A with the filmmakers and actors that was filmed at the cinema and watch that, which provides unique content almost like a DVD’s special features.”

Deakin University student Alison Nichol says bringing the cinema experience into their own home was more enjoyable because they didn’t need to worry about “trying not to disturb other people”.

You can actually be more engaged with the movie and the people you’re watching it with

“You can talk about it … you can’t do that in a movie theatre.”

The industry has struggled to recoup revenue lost to the pandemic, with The Motion Picture Distributors Association of Australia reporting ticket sales dropped from $1.2 billion in 2019 to $401 million in 2020.

However, respective streaming platforms provide an opportunity for cinephiles to support their favourite cinemas while capturing some of the qualities that endeared them to these places initially.

Adapt, survive, thrive: how the pandemic has changed the cinema experience

Melburnians had to create their own MIFF experience at home after COVID-19 forced the 2021 screening season online. Picture Kate Williams

The public’s response to the digital cinema experience has been overwhelmingly positive, with uptake and appreciation evident on both a global and a personal level.

According to AT&T’s 2021 second-quarter earnings report, streaming services HBO and HBO Max saw a meteoric rise of almost seven million new global subscribers in the six months after Warner Brothers announced all major 2021 titles would be released to the streaming platform the same day as their theatrical release.

While the pandemic has accelerated the growth of streaming platforms, Mr Sowada says embracing streaming is imperative for the future of cinemas.

“The push and pull of watching at home and watching at the cinema is not necessarily a fight that a cinema can overcome,” he says.

We thought that embracing that would be a great opportunity to diversify and celebrate films no matter how you want to watch them

With the landscape of film release so altered, one might worry that the culture of basking in the light of the silver screen with a room full of friends and strangers might be in jeopardy, but Ms Fitzpatrick doesn’t think so.

“Presenting films in cinema, on the big screen is our true passion. It’s so wonderful that our audience foster a collective response online, but there is something magical about seeing a film together at a screening at MIFF,” she says.

“Streaming will forever be a component, but it will never replace these great moments.”

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