Great Britain

Why the heavily criticised digital revolution has been good for cinema

In 1993, digital technology was revolutionising cinema; now it threatens to destroy it. The omens were there 28 years ago: the highest-grossing movie that year was Jurassic Park, whose dinosaurs ironically represented an evolutionary leap. Audiences were wowed by those hyper-realistic digital effects – all six minutes of them.

There were no big franchise or effects movies among that year’s UK Top 10: it was stuff such as Aladdin, The Bodyguard and Coppola’s Dracula, (mostly released in 1992 in the US). These days it’s rare to find a non-franchise movie in the top spots, and just as rare to find six CGI-free minutes in any of them. Digital has revolutionised form and content. Exacerbated by the pandemic, streaming services are on the up, blockbusters are released online at the same time as in cinemas and movie theatres are struggling to stay open.

As a result, what counts as a “real” movie is now up for debate. Patty Jenkins recently condemned films produced by streamers as “fake movies”, in contrast to her own, studio-made but CGI-heavy Wonder Woman. Martin Scorsese criticised effects-driven superhero movies as “not cinema”, although he wasn’t above using digital effects himself in The Irishman. Since when were movies supposed to be real anyway?

Hey, see DC ... Wonder Woman.
Hey, see DC ... Wonder Woman. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

Digital hasn’t made everything worse. Back in 1993, apart from video, the only way to see old or obscure movies was terrestrial TV or at a rep cinema such as London’s Prince Charles (which still regularly shows Jurassic Park). Now we take for granted that we can watch just about anything at any time, anywhere, and there’s so much more choice. Digital has democratised cinema. Plus it’s not a zero-sum game: in 2019, UK cinema admissions were still higher than at any time since the early 1970s.

Much else has changed for the better since 1993: then the industry was overwhelmingly white and male-dominated; today it is slightly less so. The seeds of progress were there: that year Jane Campion became the first woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes (for The Piano, although we had to wait until this year for the second: Julia Ducournau with Titane). Tom Hanks won the best actor Oscar (awarded in 1994) for, controversially, portraying a gay man with Aids in Philadelphia. It was the year of Sally Potter’s Orlando, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (in the UK), What’s Love Got to Do With It and many more.

Today the doors are open considerably wider for women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ film-makers. Cinema is vastly richer for this plurality of stories and perspectives. That, surely, is the key to its survival, not technology. The Guide goes the way of the dinosaurs but cinema continues to evolve. It’s up to us where it goes next.

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