There was one strongly dissonant speech at the annual Europa Cinemas conference in Paris.
Saskia Walzel, policy manager at UK’s Consumer Focus, offered a blunt warning that independent and arthouse film in Europe was struggling to connect with young audiences. She suggested that the attempt by the cinema industry and policy makers to ‘educate’ the digital generation was destined to failure.
While much of her argument was based on subjective judgement, it was informed by experience of working in a wide variety of areas of consumer research. It certainly acted as a useful catalyst for discussion at the conference, underlining Europa Cinemas deservedly strong reputation for challenging its membership of independent cinemas.
The theatrical business is going through a period of considerable turbulence, not least in an uncomfortable transition to digital cinema. And it is difficult to focus on bigger strategic issues when the day-to-day business requires such attention.
Walzel’s argument was a reminder that the future will not be decided by any sector of business but ultimately by consumer choice.
It was perhaps particularly timely given that the theatrical business has largely united in opposition to any shortening of ‘release windows’, or to use the current European phrase, ‘media chronology’.
Cinemas are convinced that reducing, or removing the gap between DVD and, perhaps more importantly, Video On Demand, releases will undermine their businesses.
A wave of innovations have made it possible to open up sensational alternative worlds on faceless out of town multiplexes. From The Hobbit to Life Of Pi, the supposedly unfilmable fantasies of literature are now being brought to life.
Really successful films on that scale will probably remain rare and are dependent on the few directors and visionaries capable of truly harnessing technology to the scope and scale of that kind of storytelling. There is a genuine fear that digital cinema is redefining cinema in terms of spectacle.
And it is one of the ironies of film, that the arthouse tradition of intimacy and dissection of the human soul is considerably more effective on a big screen than a laptop.
Saskia’s warning that there is a real danger that the art cinema tradition will be lost should not be lightly discounted. There was a faint echo in her words of Francois Truffaut’s criticisms of the “cinema de papa” in that confident period of post-war reawakening that we still call the new wave.
Given the still powerful hold of the judgements and hierarchy of film still exerted by that wave and the auteur theory it spawned, it is surely a fair question to ask: What happens when the critics of the cinema de papa become papas?
One might argue that the Saskias of this world may are irrelevant. How much energy and time does the industry need to expend on people who really just don’t like films. There is still a sizeable population of cinema lovers and in the developed world these days, people live longer, meaning that there are simply more mature adults to keep tradition alive.
But cinema surely cannot be allowed to become an ageing art, like jazz, shorn of its relevance and radicalism. The road from preservation and atrophy is not a long one.
There is something very telling in the lack of movement in the canon of great movies, selected by the various film institutes around the world. The Sight And Sound 2012 selection, chosen by critics and directors, for example, pretty much reorders the same selections every time it is published, with classics such as Tokyo Story, Citizen Kane, Vertigo, etc, still there somewhere at the top of the pile.
Perhaps the suspicion that the charts of all-time great films are more a reflection of what people think they should like and see rather than any actual taste has more than a hint of truth. Yet the very existence of a canon of work that we think we ought to have seen reflects a collective experience.
Film lovers brought up before the Internet achieved its dominance will almost certainly have found their enthusiasm through a small number of routes. Only a few countries, led by France, will have been exposed to classic film in the classroom.
For the rest, a combination of public service broadcasting, the power of newspaper critics and ‘expert’ commentary will have influenced the sense of what stands up as worthy film.
The greatest films in cinema history helped invent a language that can be used to tell many stories in the future.
But Saskia might become that Jiminy Cricket voice that reminds us that film cannot educate a generation to love film – it must be won.
A version of this article is to be published by Moviescope magazine in its next issue.