A Hair-Brained Scheme That Might Save Cinema

Barely a week goes by without some journalist announcing the death of cinema, moaning about anything from the lack of ushers to the questionable certificate of a particular film. Most of the time such comments are grossly overinflated, usually the result of said journalist having seen a memorably bad film and projecting that one experience onto an entire industry. They will say they are speaking for the public and doing it for the good of cinema, when in fact most of them are doing it because they can or have nothing else to write about. But at the risk of being found fiddling while Rome burns, I feel it is my duty to address one particular issue, namely the correlation between box office returns and the quality of films on offer.

I attend the cinema as often as humanly possible. My normal stomping ground is the Tyneside in Newcastle, which is comfortable, brilliantly managed and shows a great selection of films. Being an old independent cinema with 3 screens rather than a modern multiplex with around 30, it has an air of old-fashioned quality to it, and one screen (dubbed the Classic) still has an old-fashioned velvet curtain which rises at the start of every screening.

The Tyneside attracts a relatively 'respectable' clientele - not all of them are snobbish arthouse bores, but you're not going to have every word of a film talked over by a bunch of bored adolescents munching through their body weight in popcorn while updating Facebook. This, along with the particular programming of the Tyneside and my own work commitments, means that I have managed to avoid (or been unable to see) a lot of the big tentpole blockbuster releases of recent months. I am therefore willing to accept that my experience of cinema and the cinema-going experience is a damn sight more rosy than others elsewhere.

But even with those prejudices in place, I have become as aware as others of the many worrying trends which are threatening to do permanent damage to our cinemas and cinema-going culture. The rebirth of 3D in a futile attempt to combat piracy has infantilised filmmaking, with the focus shifting further away from substance towards spectacle. The outsourcing of movie marketing had led to trailers which give away the whole plot, or ad campaigns which misrepresent a film by misquoting critics (or, in the case of Revolver, inventing them altogether). The rise of multiplex culture and the increased emphasis on opening weekend means it is harder to grow a film by having its audience build slowly, and therefore smaller, lower-budget films are finding it hard to get the distribution they deserve. And the emphasis on celebrity culture and star power means that movie journalism is frequently reduced to the level of a gossip mag's rumour mill, and a film is judged not on its merits but on how fun the stars were to be with when interviewed.

But as much as all these attributes make my heart sink on a daily basis, my main gripe or issue with cinema is more deep-rooted than any of these. The main problem with cinema is that there is no direct financial incentive for directors and studios to make good films. There is no direct connection between how much money a film takes and how good it is, and therefore no guarantee that if we pay money to see a film, it will encourage the people who made it to either keep up the good work or do better next time.

Think about it. When you pay money to see a film, you have no idea how good or bad it is going to be. Even if you've read the book, watched all the trailers, read all the fanboy rantings on forums and seen extended clips on YouTube, there is still no guarantee that the end product will be anything you could have imagined. On the one hand, you might queue up to see the latest big release and go in fearing the worst, but come out having had a brilliant time, proclaiming the film to be the new Citizen Kane and saying you got your money's worth. On the other hand, you might queue up on opening weekend hyped to the gills, only to emerge two hours later feeling depressed that your dream movie turned out to be a total stinker and a massive waste of your hard-earned cash.

The problem is that, regardless of whether or not you care how good the film was, the Hollwood studios don't. They've no reason to. In an age where everyone on the internet is potentially a critic, old-fashioned newspaper and TV critics like Roger Ebert don't have the power to kill a film by talk that they had 20 years ago. As long as a film makes its money back (2.5 times the original budget, to be exact), it will be judged a success and the studio will commission the same people to make something that will repeat that success. Just because thousands of people paid to see a film, doesn't mean that thousands of people liked the film. But to the studios and the marketing gurus, the two might effectively be the same thing.

It is from this problem that all the others I have mentioned ultimately stem. Much of the 3D revolution came about because Avatar took money - not necessarily because it was good, but because it was hyped to the max and promised a unique cinema experience. Whatever its merits, Avatar sent a message to the studios that if a film was in 3D, it would make money - hence why most digimations are now in 3D and many films (including Star Wars) are being 'retrofitted' into the format. This emphasis on hype plays into the marketing people's hands as well: it doesn't matter what the film is, if they can create a poster with impressive quotes or a trailer with flashy editing and a kick-ass soundtrack, people will come.

By opening a film everywhere on the same day, there is very little time for word-of-mouth to pass on the verdict of the first people to see it, and thereby to allow smaller films to grow in audience and in recognition. By the time everyone realises that they have been sold a pup, the sums already add up and the damage is done. And by having the stars of the film plastered over the covers of OK! and Hello!, doing interviews for everyone about everything except the film, people who follow celebrity culture obsessively will pay to see their idols' latest work, just to be part of the in-crowd who gossip about it over coffee the following morning.

In short, cinema is in big trouble unless it finds a way to restore or recreate any kind of link between good, artistically enriched filmmaking and a healthy box office, between quality and quantity. We can't simply shut internet critics up and go back to the days when Siskel and Ebert told us what to think, any more than we can march up to the likes of Jennifer Aniston and tell them to stop being famous. And while releasing films day-in-date might improve behaviour and stamp out piracy, it won't necessarily raise standards in filmmaking. The solution I would like to propose may seem hair-brained and fool-hardy, but it might just be the radical shift that cinema needs.

The solution is this: Let audiences pay what they want to see films, and make them pay AFTER they've seen it. Call it Pay-What-You-Please.

Let me give you an example. Say you go to your local cinema and see, for arguments' sake, the new Liam Neeson thriller, Unknown. You still ask for a ticket so you can be admitted, but you pay nothing except on whatever snacks you might like to take in with you. You sit down, watch the film, and then it ends. Now you pause for a minute, maybe chat to the person next to you about how much you enjoyed the film. Then, as you go out, two cinema employees stand at the door with buckets collecting your donations.

If everyone pays a minimum amount, say £3, then the individual cinemas can still cover the cost of hiring the print and paying its staff to run it through the projector. Beyond that, whatever money a film makes is in direct correlation with the audience's response to it. Some people may enjoy a film a lot and give £3 plus an extra tenner, while others may have hated it and will only pay the minimum. With the right number of staff either in the screening or in the lobby, you would avoid people sneaking out early to skip paying or moving from one screening to another whenever they got bored. If necessarily a head count can be made before screenings start to make sure everyone pays the minimum, something which CCTV could easily monitor.

If this system were put in place, it would at last be true to say that the films that take the most money are often the best in quality. You would never get a perfect correlation because you can't control individual audience responses, but it would send a message to studio bosses that if they want our money, they will have to earn it by giving us good, entertaining and engaging cinema rather than expecting us to swallow the latest flashy, celeb-filled, mega-hyped blockbuster that just happens to be in 3D. Bad directors who have rode the opening weekend up to now will find their films take less money and so cannot get future projects funded, while good films will generate studios revenue which can be spent on other films of a similar nature, thereby encouraging bright young talent to come through. As for the public, they would soon get used to it, just as quickly as they embraced widescreen or surround sound.

The only big obstacle, as far as I can see, is how you would implement such a system. It would need to start small, with trials at independent cinemas or arthouse venues to see whether it would be practical and cost-effective at a grass roots level. Maybe a cinema like the Tyneside could hold trial evenings once a week, or for one film in a given week, so that the public could get used to the practice while still being offered the choice of paying up front. If the idea catches on (and I believe it will), the big chains and studios will have to adjust to prevent their profits from ending up in the coffers of these small cinemas on the cutting edge. It may take years, if not decades, for such a system to fully take hold everywhere, but even a strong partial foothold would be a significant breakthrough.

Modern cinema contains much that we can take pride in, whether in the quality of individual films or the technology used to bring them to life. But if we want to continue to enjoy the cinema-going experience, and preserve the medium from the various threats our culture has created, we should not be afraid to attempt radical changes to it. There is no magic bullet that will solve all the problems, but Pay-What-You-Please could be a big, important step towards a more general renewal of cinema.


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