The Irish used to be the world’s most frequent movie-goers (Iceland holds that accolade, according to another study by HSI Screen Digest). Irish cinemas are losing attendances three times faster than the average EU country.
This is poignant, given we’ve just had a bumper year, to judge by the films at last night’s Oscars ceremony, in Hollywood, which included the magnificent Nebraska, Her and American Hustle.
The film industry is under the cosh these days. It’s in danger of being eclipsed by cable television, which, during its golden age of the last decade, has given us masterpieces such as The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad.
It wouldn’t be the first time the death knell has rung out for cinema. Its audience began to taper off in the 1930s, as the western world’s economy slumped. The advent of TV in the 1950s seemed to be a mortal blow. But cinema survived. Video in the 1980s brought more angst. Now, digital is the threat.
Last week, I wandered around the exhibitor area of the World Mobile Congress, in Barcelona, where vendors eagerly showed off four-inch smartphones that could download movies in minutes. Homes have an average of eight internet-enabled screens for entertainment, according to a research firm, CCS Insight.
With all these screens competing for our attention, it’s little wonder we’ve lost the time to head out to the cinema. Novelist John Banville speaks infectiously of stumbling out of movie-theatres into a world that looked unreal because you had been sitting in the dark for a couple of hours immersed in somebody’s dream. That experience is lost when you watch a film at your ‘home cinema’.
The communal experience of watching a film with hundreds of other people in the dark is magical.
Even if you’re not into the transcendence, it’s a good place for pranks. The crime fiction writer, Raymond Chandler, used to go the cinema with his friend, Warren Lloyd. They’d sit on opposite sides and would jockey with each other by laughing at inappropriate moments to prompt the audience to join in.
Gone are the days when the picture house was the hub of social life in a town or city. It might have been where you went on your first date, where you stole your first kiss in the dark. A marriage or two blossomed from the lovers’ seats, which used to be perched for business at the back of the cinema.
It might have been where you watched your first pornographic film. My friend’s father worked part-time in the evenings at a cinema.
He opened the cinema in the middle of the night for some of his workmates from the factory. One of them had a copy of a porn movie.
They rigged it up on the projector, but could only get it working upside down, so they had to watch it by craning their necks at 180-degree angles.
Gone, sadly, is the opening feature, and locally filmed ads. I remember one for a local shoe shop, in which a guy dressed in a space suit walked across an obviously manufactured moonscape, while a voiceover told us in serious tones the shop’s shoes were “out of this world”.
Or, there used to be an ad in Dingle’s cinema with the memorable exchange: “Where’s Dick Mack’s pub? It’s opposite the church. Where’s the church? It’s opposite Dick Mack’s.”
If we lose the cinema experience, we will lose something wonderful, as a character from EL Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, an entrepreneur trying to sell the new cinema craze at the turn of the 20th century, explained: “In the movie films,” he said, “we only look at what is there already. Life shines on the shadow screen, as from the darkness of one’s mind. People want to know what is happening to them.
“This is most important today, in this country, where everybody is so new. There is such a need to understand.”