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- This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of Sight and Sound.
More than 20 years ago, I started at the Academy Valand, a three-year film directing education in Gothenburg. Around the same time, I began to follow the debates about film politics and film culture in Sweden – mostly articles written by the film industry, producers, directors, cinema owners, et cetera. The debates haven’t fundamentally changed since then: cinema is threatened because of falling box-office numbers; we want more money from the Swedish Film Institute. “Cinema is important,” the debaters often repeat, but no one really specifies why. It feels more like they are worried about their personal economy. There is nothing wrong with that, but just say that. Hiding behind a cultural debate will not be constructive for any part of the industry, and I really think we need to talk honestly about cinema from both an economic and cultural perspective.
We all agree that we will not go back to our old habits when it comes to looking at images. The big screen, the quality of sound or even film history itself are not things that enable the cinema to compete with the internet. That doesn’t make cinema less important today. On the contrary, it’s more important than ever because of the simple fact that it’s a space where we watch images together.
Let me use two examples from Sweden to try to explain myself. Back in the day, Swedes watched TV together; today, the only programme that makes us gather in front of the TV is… the Eurovision Song Contest. When Eurovision is shown on TV the Swedish people get very engaged. From young to old, we discuss and have opinions, with the news media, of course, following it all. I think this is very sad, and what is worse is that basically all other content than the Eurovision Song Contest we watch on individual screens and don’t talk about. In Sweden today, 14-year-old YouTubers have a larger audience than Swedish television’s children’s programmes. It ultimately means that we have lost influence over what images we want to show our next generation, to sponsored 14-year-olds in the hands of tech companies. As a believer in public service and the power of images to influence our behaviour – I can talk a lot about this another time – I think that should make us panic!
So back to cinema: its socialising aspect gives it a unique quality, one that is even more unique now than when the Lumières performed the first commercial screenings. Cinema today can stand in contrast to individual screens where we ‘dopamine-scroll’ without reflection. It can be the most important public space where we meet, watch and discuss images and content. I think that this is cinema’s best selling point, and we have to push that aspect more and give that experience to the audience and the next generation, or else they will not be able to choose it.
I have a simple proposal on how to revitalise cinema, bring forward its social aspect and make the box office go up. Sounds great, huh!? (The idea comes from within a European context and a state-funded film institute, but I am sure you can also apply it to the US and other countries’ industries.) The proposal: what if all feature film directors who receive support from a national film institute should be obliged to go on a cinema tour with their film in ten cities (and not just the biggest ones)? In this way we can create events for cinema owners that they can sell to the audience. Ideally, other people from the production should also participate: actors and cinemtographers, for example. If we make 40 feature films a year in Sweden, that means 400 events. Think of the number of events in France, the UK or Germany! We creators would get in touch with, and get to know, our audience and at the same time the audience would have an opportunity to get to know us. We’d simply create a common arena. The tour’s costs and fees could be included as part of the budget for producing the film. I suggest a small fixed salary comparable to the one authors get when they tour with their books to Swedish libraries. No one will get rich and it’s hard to tour – ask any musician or stand-up comedian – but I seriously think this is a way to bring back the cinema audience and revitalise today’s cinema culture.
A couple of years ago I tried to suggest this idea to the CEO of the Swedish Film Institute, Anna Serner, but unfortunately she didn’t bite. Maybe I didn’t explain it in a good way. But if any of you believe this is a good idea and happen to run into the head of your national film institute, please try to talk to them!