late eighties and even more so this decade have witnessed a decisive process
of renewal in cinema exhibition,
comparable to the changes of the fifties. After years of closure after
closure, new cinemas are being built.
It is a hard task to decide whether this process is a necessary answer to the crisis in the cinema, or whether it is technology-driven. The two factors probably work hand in hand, in a context already influenced by vaster socio-cultural change.
As is well known, it is not image consumption (commercial networks, pay-tv and home video have greatly expanded access to films) which is in crisis, but the specific role of the cinema theatre. Any hopes that theatres might return to their original function must be considered utopian, but it is certainly true that cinemas need to promote awareness of the specific qualities which make viewing on the big screen a different experience. The efforts at production level to achieve unusual formats or high entertainment content in photography (from The Decalogue to Forrest Gump) ought to be reiterated in exhibition. Going to the movies should be seen as an "event", whether because the film is the object of collective attention, or because the cinema theatre must offer a cleverly put together package of services and high performance (from sound and picture quality to ancillaries such as parking, bookstore, crèche...).
Change in the cinema also needs to be seen contextually with developments in communications and the emergent scenarios which the cinema itself has accurately depicted on occasion. Interactivity, currently on a variety of trials, has entered the cinema thanks to electronic and computer technology: products such as Virtual Movie (films on CD-I and CD-Rom), Interfilm and titles from Cinema Dinamico, with specially adapted theatres, would have been unimaginable only a short while ago. The huge dimensions of the latest cinema screens, around 25 metres in width, as installed at the Grand Ecran Gaumont in Paris and the main auditoria at the Antwerp Metropolis or Brussels Kinepolis, or the special curvature of systems such as Imax or Omnimax: are not these, too, attempts to "engulf" viewers in the film, entice them into something like a virtual reality? Which, after all, is just what the panoramas of the nineteenth century promised to do.
On another front, the integrated network structure of communications induces us to think of cinemagoing as only part of a complex picture of urban entertainment, one option from a multimedia menu. The role of the cinema theatre per se thus shrinks to that of a repository for the collective memory, and end use in cities gravitates around major complexes.
The multiplex formula seems a winner: it welds a cluster of cinemas into an organic whole, achieves economies of scale over a significant number of screens, guaranteeing programming variety and assisting audiences with integrated services. There are various interpretations of this model, from the long-standing tradition of the Austrian multiplex, to the high quality and atmosphere of the French version, to multiplexes in tandem with shopping or dining opportunities, multicomplexes (cinema alongside discos, videogame arcades, etc.) and theme parks. The product range assumes an aware audience, interested in maintaining the social dimension of cinemagoing, albeit according to rituals befitting the next millennium (products off the shelf like at the supermarket, the cult of the film and its ambience...). These are conditions which suggest a long history still to be made for cinema theatres.