Independent cinemas aren’t doomed. The resurgence of the indie bookstore can help us understand why.
Quick refresh: You’ve Got Mail is a rom-comedy of errors about Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks falling in love in an AOL chatroom while unwittingly being irl business rivals. The business in question is books. Ryan owns a beloved children’s bookstore she inherited from her mom, while Hanks helms the encroaching Barnes and Noble analog. Hanks’ big franchise ends up bankrupting Ryan’s lovable local haunt, which, of course, has no real bearing on them ending up together.
Taking potshots at Ryan and Hanks’ reconciliation being a big, dumb stretch is a bit like snickering at the film’s dated depiction of the late-90s internet. It’s good for a laugh but isn’t entirely at odds with the point the film is ostensibly pushing. Namely, that our need for human connection will adapt and survive technological change. Ryan’s bookshop going extinct is an unfortunate but inevitable casualty of progress — the same progress that gives her the consolation prize of an internet-begot boyfriend.
You’ve Got Mail does not extend its “human connections will survive change” thesis to small, independent businesses. That this irony sailed over the head of the then-biggest film product-placement in history is…unsurprising. Human courtship will weather the winds of impersonal, corporate convenience, we’re told, but indie businesses will not.
Chain bookstores became top dog in the mid-90s because they were vast, convenient, and cheap. Those of you keeping score at home will recognize those qualities as three things the internet does very, very well. Watching You’ve Got Mail after Amazon took over bookselling feels like watching a gothic heroine unknowingly sip poisoned tea. Tom Hanks, you fool. The web will help you bonk Meg Ryan, but in like 5 years it’s going to invalidate the shit out of your business model.
The real gag is that while recently big chain retailers have been dropping like flies, indie bookstores have seen seven straight years of growth. In 2015, the New York Times reported that in the U.S., the number of independent bookstores increased by 27% since 2009. In 2017, the American Booksellers Association put growth at 35%. So what happened? Why are indie bookstores surviving and even thriving in spite of very popular, and very convenient online retailers?
And what does this have to do with the “death of the local cinema”?
What this has to do with the “death of the local cinema”
The impact of the internet on the book business and the movie industry isn’t 1:1. That said, there are patterns that we can learn from, and that should peak our interest (and optimism) as film fans.
There is a persistent fear that cinemas are going to be killed off by streaming. It’s a deeply felt, if somewhat hazy, anxiety. Some argue poor conduct and corporate buy up have deteriorated the theatrical experience and increased the incentive to stay home. Others wince justifiably at the numbers: ticket prices are up, attendance is down: we’re doomed.
Bottom line: home viewing options offer more variety at a cheaper price. No matter how much value there may be in seeing a film in a beloved local brick-and-mortar cinema when it comes to convenience and selection, online services can’t be beaten.
And that’s okay. Because unlike big chain multiplexes, local picture houses, like local bookstores, aren’t in the business of selling convenience. In fact, from a purely commercial standpoint, indie cinemas aren’t really in the business of selling movies at all.
Netflix and your local cinema are selling different things
Back to bookselling for a second. The cut-and-dry reason modern indie bookstores are on the up and up is that they appeal to a completely different marketplace than their online counterparts. The argument goes something like this: when you buy a book at an indie bookstore you aren’t just buying a book. You’re buying into what Harvard Business School professor Ryan Raffaelli calls the “Three C’s”: community, curation, and convening.
If a cinema is just a place to see a film at a competitive price, it will lose to streaming. Big chains are just starting to realize this. But their frantic bid to entice viewers is super sweaty; “competing on experience,” is not as simple as slinging $12 tequila sunrises.
The appeal of seeing a film at your local indie operates with the same dynamic as going to your favorite bar. Sure, you could buy beer at the grocery store and take it home. It’d be cheaper. Less of a hassle. Or you could go to your local watering hole where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came. Technically speaking, the beer is the same, but damn if it doesn’t taste different.
What indie theaters can offer that streaming can’t is a sense of location-based community. Instead of boundless viewing options, they can offer intentioned, focused selection; they can develop in-person relationships with their customers by helping them discover the up-and-coming and the unexpected. They can act as spaces where folks can share like-minded interests. They can be places where we can disengage from the outside world, together.
That’s all well and good. And true. But there’s a catch.
We have to show up
Local independent cinemas might be playing a different game than streaming, but they have to pay rent. They have to pay their lovely employees, exhibitors, organizers, and film studios. They have to make ends meet.
I could run a ghost tour of all the independent theaters that have shut down in my hometown. Here lies the Ridge, leveled to make way for condos. Here lies the Hollywood, derelict seven years after it closed its doors. Here lies the Caprice, the Capital 6, the Lyric, the Colonial, and the Plaza. The Rio remains, saved (a miracle) through crowdfunding and Ryan Reynolds.
If the Rio’s survival is a testament to the demand for independent cinemas, the narrowness of its escape is a warning. One of the reasons we love indie cinemas is that they aren’t corporate behemoths. But that comes with a certain precarity, and demands support.
Film lovers know that local cinemas are special and that they do something that streaming and big chains can’t touch. But film lovers musing wistfully about the “cinematic experience” doesn’t pay rent. Romantic lip service doesn’t secure allowances for historic properties with direct communal purpose. We need to stop agonizing over the death of cinemas — or worse assuming that they will survive — and patronize the theaters doing good work. Put your money where your film buff cred is. Lead by example. Bring a friend.