In 1993, digital technology revolutionized cinema; now he threatens to destroy it. The Omens were there 28 years ago: The highest grossing film that year was Jurassic Park, whose dinosaurs ironically represented an evolutionary leap. Audiences were wowed by these hyperrealistic digital effects – every six minutes.
There weren’t any big franchises or effects movies in this year’s UK Top 10: it was stuff like Coppola’s Aladdin, The Bodyguard, and Dracula (released mostly in 1992 in the US). These days, it’s rare to find a movie without a franchise in the top spots, and just as rare to find six minutes without CGI in one of them. Digital has revolutionized form and content. Exacerbated by the pandemic, streaming services are multiplying, blockbusters are released online at the same time as in cinemas and cinemas are struggling to stay open.
As a result, what counts as a “real” movie is now up for debate. Patty Jenkins recently condemned streamer-produced films as “fake movies”, unlike her own Wonder Woman, made in the studio but heavy in CGI. Martin Scorsese has criticized effects-oriented superhero films as “not cinema,” although he was not shy about using digital effects himself in The Irishman. Since when were movies supposed to be real anyway?
Digital hasn’t made everything worse. In 1993, outside of video, the only way to see old or obscure films was on terrestrial television or in a representative cinema like Prince Charles of London (which still regularly broadcasts Jurassic Park). Now we take it for granted that we can watch just about anything anytime, anywhere, and there is so much more to choose from. Digital technology has democratized 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.
Many other things have changed for the better since 1993: at the time, the industry was predominantly white and male-dominated; today it’s slightly less then. The seeds of progress are there: that year, Jane Campion becomes the first woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes (for Le Piano, although we have to wait this year for the second: Julia Ducournau with Titane). Tom Hanks won the Oscar for Best Actor (awarded in 1994) for controversially playing a gay man with AIDS in Philadelphia. It was the year of Sally Potter’s Orlando, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (UK), What’s Love Got to Do With It and many more.
Today, the doors are wide open for LGBTQ + women, people of color and filmmakers. The cinema is much richer with this plurality of stories and perspectives. It is surely the key to its survival, not the technology. The Guide follows the path of the dinosaurs but the cinema continues to evolve. It’s up to us where it goes next.