German statistics for 2018 show that 13,9% fewer cinema tickets were sold than in the year prior; in 2017 122.3 million tickets were sold compared to 105.4 million in 2018. Should we worry? Will cinemas close due to lack of guests? Will we watch films on our phones, or on television via Netflix? Netflix does seem to be assuming more presence in the film world. In 2018 the Netflix-sponsored film Roma won the Golden Lion or first prize at the Venice Film Festival. Previously, the Cannes Film Festival could not agree with the director Alfonso Cuarón on the limitations involved with a connection to Netflix and the film moved to the Venice festival. Since then it has won three 2019 Oscars including cinematography, directing, and best foreign-language film.
The Berlinale followed the lead of Venice and accepted the Netflix-sponsored film ELISA Y MARCELA into competition. It also competed for a Teddy Award (gay films). It did not win any prizes, but it did cause 160 owners of local cinemas to send a letter of protest to the Berlinale for allowing it to show at all. Their main argument was that the film would never come into the cinemas (where cinemas would take in ticket money), but would go straight to online streaming. ROMA was in cinemas just one to three weeks, while normally, films are available to cinemas for four months before going into streaming.
Last year Julius and Katja Feldmeier made a one-hour film called 6MINUTEN66. They invited film makers to sit alone in a hotel room and speak about the topic “Is Cinema dying as an art form?” Fifteen directors participated. Some took the offer seriously and spoke into a camera monitored in the room. Others left early. One took a bath; one played ball with his dog.
The Feldmeiers were invited to participate in a panel discussion in the Audi Berlinale Lounge next to the red carpet. The topic was similar to their film: “Is cinema as a player on the way out? Is it dying as an art form?” Also on the panel were Magdalena Wolff (producer) and Tini Tellmann, as well as Niklas Chryssos and Dietrich Brüggemann (both film directors). Discussion leader was Linda Söffker.
The panel skirted around various topics, saying that the idea was that video-on-demand would cause people to learn about a film and tell others. Then it would go into cinemas for two weeks, where people would also go, and then back to video-on-demand. However, that does not work. Today directors want to make series or films for HBO, which are easier to wrap up and which provide steady incomes. They debated what type of story would require a large screen or be satisfactory on a mobile phone, i.e., do you write a story for a certain screen? Brüggemann was the most outspoken and he said that Germany is much too conservative, considering everything new a threat to life today. Long ago people thought that jazz was a threat, for example. Local cinemas love to participate in the Berlinale, because at least then, they know that people will come. Young children need someone to take them to the cinema and it should be fun. Brüggemann was in France and saw a group of school kids all going to the film SOME LIKE IT HOT. He said that was fun. Germany on the contrary would probably take young people to a conservative, serious film. Actually, young people don’t watch television any more, than they do films in cinemas. They are on their mobile phones and tablets, doing this side by side, no longer together. What good is the best film, when nobody sees it? Perhaps it is a financial problem, as Netflix at 8 euros for a whole month is cheaper than a cinema ticket for 13 euros (which was the price during the Berlinale). We need to build more arthouse cinemas in agricultural areas.
In the end the panel never really mentioned Netflix or the presence of ELISA Y MARCELA at the Berlinale. However, the audience was full of young adults, and they, as well as the (also young) panel participants, were obviously concerned about the future of film. The responsibility rests on them, as Germans (and probably the whole world) assume new ways of watching films – or not. In the meantime Steven Spielberg wants to disqualify streaming movies from competing in the Oscars. Netflix answers, “We are giving filmmakers more ways to share art.” The discussion will go on.