In the last year, film fans around the world have had to get used to seeing new movies on screens several times smaller than usual. Rather than rushing to the box office to mark a new release, it’s been a case of adding a new film to our Netflix queue, or perhaps shelling out a small fortune to rent from one of the many VOD platforms. And while there have arguably been some benefits to this compromised system of release –among them, several films have become more accessible to a wider audience – there are also myriad drawbacks.
Never has this been more clear than in watching News of the World, the enjoyable new Western drama from Paul Greengrass. Starring Tom Hanks (who the director previously worked with on Oscar-nominated real-life thriller Captain Phillips) the film tells of a traveling newsreader and the relationship he forms with Johanna, a 10-year-old girl he is forced to accompany on an arduous trek across the Texas plains in post Civil War America. Many things are striking about the film – not least the sharply written script, which blends the tropes of the classic Hollywood Western with a tale clearly intended to reflect 21st century concerns, and the central performance from Hanks, who is typically accomplished in the lead role.
Perhaps the thing that most struck me about News of the World, though, was just how clearly it was designed for the big screen. Greengrass – who perhaps remains best known for his work on the Bourne franchise – might have swapped the frenetic pace of his earlier blockbusters for a more languid, considered approach, but the results are no less cinematic. Complete with beautifully shot sweeping vistas, a handful of expertly staged set pieces, and a stirring score from James Newton Howard it’s a film that, more than any new feature I’ve seen in recent months, practically begs to be shown on the big screen. The film is undoubtedly still effective on television screens, in no small part due to the engaging relationship at its heart, but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that something is lost by not seeing the film projected as large as possible.
Since the pandemic began, there has been lots of talk from some of the more pessimistic pundits that the various lockdowns could be the final nail in the coffin of the traditional theatrical release model, which had already been threatened by streaming for many years. Indeed, speaking ahead of News of the World’s limited theatrical release in the States towards the end of 2020, Hanks – normally such a reassuring presence – was himself somewhat downbeat about the future of big-screen entertainment. “News of the World might be the last adult movie about people saying interesting things that’s going to play on a big screen somewhere,” he told Collider, further explaining that the change brought around by COVID had been a slow train coming. “Without a doubt we are actually into the big curve of change that I think has been due ever since people first had the ability to pay for video on demand,” he concluded.
My outlook is more optimistic. I’m sure I can’t have been the only person watching News of the World from the comfort of my living room and imagining just how much better some of those stunning shots would have looked on a bigger screen. And as long as films are made with that sort pf spectacle in mind, I feel confident that the appetite is still there for the full cinematic experience. This is why, while undoubtedly frustrating, the continued delays to some of the most hotly anticipated films – both franchise fare such as No Time to Die and other high profile releases like Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho – are actually reassuring: these movies wouldn’t be continually pushed back if the studios didn’t have faith that audiences would turn up in droves as soon as restrictions allow.
There’s no doubt that we’ve been lucky to have a steady stream of films arrive on an assortment of platforms since the first lockdown forced cinemas to close their doors, but it’s simply unfeasible that this could ever replace the cinematic experience: frankly, films suffer more than just box office losses by foregoing a big-screen release. Streaming can complement traditional releases, sure, and it’s looking increasingly likely that simultaneous release is the way forward – but post-pandemic I remain extremely hopeful that films like News of the World won’t have to be seen on a small screen.