15 Years of Celluloid Junkie

By Patrick von Sychowski | September 13, 2022 2:05 am PDT

Today it is exactly 15 years since the first article was published on Celluloid Junkie, marking a decade-and-a-half that has seen the global cinema industry go through its biggest changes and face its greatest challenges ever. What started modestly as a blog (we still get called that; it’s OK) gap-filler project has become a full-time business charting every aspect of the theatrical exhibition market. At its heart, Celluloid Junkie is driven by the deep-rooted belief in the cinema industry, which is why felt it deserved a dedicated publication charting the business, technology, people and places of cinema from an international perspective. But we had no idea where it would lead us.

The Articles that Set the Tone
Tellingly the first three articles not only set the tone for CJ (as we now shorthand it) but also for the cinema industry as a whole for the next 15 years, whether through luck or foresight we aren’t sure. The first ever CJ article was about a trailer airing during a broadcast of “The Daily Show”, back when John Stewart was at its helm, of an upcoming action film called “Iron Man” from comic book publishers Marvel, who had previously turned out films such as “Blade” and “Howard the Duck”. This one featured fresh-out-of-rehab actor Robert Downey Jr., from the upcoming director of “Made” and “Elf”. The entire ad block was the trailer, meaning people would be less likely to fast-forward through it on their Tivo (remember those?).

As J. Sperling Reich wrote at the time, “With the buzz the stunt generated, Paramount may be onto something.” How right he was, though ultimately it would be Disney and not Paramount that was onto a good thing with Marvel, now in its fourth ‘universe’ phase. Marvel has been key to the fortunes of cinema ever since then and while some cinema snobs and critics bemoan sequels and super heroes, they have been the ones paying for the investments that have seen a transformative upgrade of cinemas through better screens, seats, sound and service.

The second article, by yours truly, was about the new head of the UK’s Cinema Exhibitors’ Association, one Phil Clapp, who was replacing CEA stalwarts John Wilkinson. Phil joined CEA from the UK government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS) and the snarky 30-something CJ journalists probably thought they were clever/funny when the concocted the headline “UK’s Cinema Exhib. Ass’n Gets Clapp” (get a dose of that journalism talent). We thus note that it is also Phil’s 15th anniversary – congratulations! He is still firmly seated on the popcorn throne, also wearing the crown as President of UNIC, the international cinema union. Charting, interviewing and highlighting the work of the many people behind the scenes of the cinema business is one of the things that has been at the heart of CJ’s mission for the last 15 years.

The third article was about the satellite transmission of a director and writer Q&A from the BFI Southbank (as it had just been renamed) to nine cinemas across the UK. Again, the pace of accelerated technology change that cinemas have seen is a red thread running through CJ’s coverage for the past 15 years, whether looking at innovations in presentation, such as the premium large formats (IMAX, ScreenX, ICE, etc.), or more invisible changes, such as ticketing software, dynamic pricing or the move to go cashless. It has been a joy to follow, learn about and cover these trends that have done so much to keep cinema relevant. We have encountered the tired ‘cinema is dying’ narrative throughout this time, but we can not only point to the big screen continuing to attract big audiences and the most talented directors, but also the many ways it keeps evolving.

CJCinemaSummit Ukraine Natalia Baydan Tomasz Jegiello Sergey Budyk

The CJ ‘Vision’ Thing
There was a vision but no master plan when we started Celluloid Junkie in 2007; which was to land a job. A regular industry job. The three of us were between jobs, so starting a blog seemed like a good way to stay visible and active until someone in the cinema industry hired us. Carolyn Giardina got a new job at her old company The Hollywood Reporter almost as soon as CJ launched, leaving Sperling and myself to figure out what to do with CJ. We were scrambling around a lot, as witnessed by our fourth and fifth articles, but we found our feet with coverage such as MovieTicket.com partnering its 100th cinema and Cinema City opening its second Israeli complex in what would ultimately become the global Cineworld empire, which you’ve probably seen quite a bit about in the news recently.

Not long after that this writer landed an extended consulting job in Mumbai that would lead to a full-time job digitising Bollywood on behalf of Adlabs-Reliance MediaWorks. While he continued to contribute occasionally to CJ, Sperling kept the back burner flame of CJ going, even as he was learning the truth about the adage of how to earn a small fortune in digital cinema (A: you start with a big fortune) in the tropics of Brazil. It wasn’t until five year later that we were faced with the opportunity/crisis of either doing something concrete with CJ or shutting it down. By this stage the site’s IT was so out of date that it was not even being indexed by Google. A major overhaul of CJ saw a new design (based on a 100-page look book), the replacement of the Saul Bass-inspired popcorn icon with the red-and-blue CJ ticket logo and a completely new WordPress architecture.

It is during this second phase of CJ that we feel that it has come to its own. We have worked hard to prove our value to the cinema business, by listening to and learning from the key men and women amongst the cinemas, the industry bodies and the vendors that come together to make the cinema magic possible. In what is a tight-knit, very old, slow to shift and relatively small industry we had to work hard to win the trust of those we spoke to. We have never sought to break a story at the expense of a contact, or done a ‘gotcha’ hit job. While we are proud of our exclusives, we are not rushing to be first to report on everything, but would rather wait and write with the aim of giving a deeper context.

We have also not been afraid of sticking out our necks, such as predicting the Chinese cinema slump, nor distinguishing our role as supporter of the cinema experience but not defenders of everything cinema operators do. We are acutely aware of the pain points of cinemas, which is for example why when the Sony hack took place, we did not publish stories with any details about the pirated SPE films that were available online long before their theatrical release, until well after they had their formal big screen premiere. It might sound presumptuous of a publication like ours, but even with small power comes a great deal of responsibility.

Celluloid Junkie Top Women in Cinema 2017
Celluloid Junkie Top Women in Cinema 2017

Top Women and Cinema of the Month
Two of the things we are most proud of having launched are the annual Top Women and the Cinema of the Month. The former was born out of a frustrated article bemoaning the lack of senior female industry figures in an industry that is driven by female consumers. But instead of complaining about why there are so few, we instead ended up highlighting the women that were making a difference in the industry. Then we discovered more. The following year even more, which is how the Top 50 Women in Global Cinema list was born. It was been a privilege to highlight the work of these super talented individuals, not least as unlike us men they have a tendency to just get on with the job rather than make a big song and dance about it. Over time we were able to practice what we preach, with the selection committee being first 50-50 then majority-female. And since we are thrilled that initiatives such as UNIC’s Mentorship scheme and the Women in Exhibition (WIE) has seen this become an industry-wide movement.

Similarly the Cinema of the Month was born out of nothing more than a frustration that so many beautiful cinemas around the world are at best afforded a cursory Tripadvisory review, while even the lowliest film gets dutifully reviewed in the newspapers, at least when printed media was still a thing (15 years can feel like a long time). So we decided to try to highlight the picture palaces that were often more stunning than the films occupying their screens. Traveling for work helped, or else it would only have been cinemas in the London and Los Angeles catchment area. It means detours and sleeping in cheap hotels or youth hostel beds, just to be able to visit a cinema we had heard or read about. We also sat through films, we might not otherwise have watched in any cinema – “Wolves at the Door” (2016) or “Venom” (2018) dubbed into German, anyone? But it has meant that we have been able to assemble a virtual coffee table book’s worth of some of the most stunning cinemas from the four corners of the world in CJ.

A Thanks to Our Sponsors and Helen
The Cinema of the Month and much of the other work at CJ would not have been possible without the support of our sponsors. There are genuinely too many to mention (we did think of an appendix to this article), so we hope that those we do not call out by name forgive us for highlighting a few. The Cinema of the Month would not have been possible without Vista. The small New Zealand company with the big global following were kind and hands-off enough to not even dictate which cinemas or mandate that they had to be Vista customers. Thank you Murray Holdaway, Kimbal Riley and everyone else there.

Dolby enabled the launch of The Marquee newsletter (more on that below). UNIC has worked with us to highlight their excellent women leaders mentorship program. Compeso throws the best parties with us. The list is long and we hope to keep growing it, because it is what enables us to keep the industry informed. The same is true for CJ Wire, which some of us were sceptical about (I seem to recall it was I), before being proved wrong as there was a need for a space for cinema-related press releases and not just one either (Oh hi Bill). If nothing else, it saves us from the ‘churnalism’ of rewriting press releases as stories by moving some paragraphs and quotes around. Just read the whole darn thing for yourself as it was originally written.

Somewhere along the celluloid road we seem to have acquired a third musketeer. Helen Budge originally submitted articles about event cinema on behalf of her previous employer. Undeterred by a commissioning CJ editor who was fairly rubbish at commissioning and working with writers to get their articles into shape (I seem to recall it was I), she nevertheless embraced the regular contributor role with gusto and was instrumental in steering CJ in new and important directions, such as CJ Green and CJ People. Along the way she became managing editor of Cinema Technology Magazine and a star of the cinema industry circuit in her own right and not just by her CJ associations. We hope that she will stay with us a long time.

UNIC’s CEO Laura Houlgatte talking to CJ’s Helen Budge. (photo: Adam MacDonald/CTC-CJ)

The Pandemic and the CJCinemaSummit
Having made the coverage of the cinema industry in China one of our areas of focus, whether the growth of private cinema or the Ghost No. 1 story, we were perhaps less caught out by the arrival of the pandemic than many others. We had been reporting on the closure of cinemas in China over the Spring Festival and were wondering why more people were not stunned that around 1/3 of all cinema screens in the world were dark, just because they were in one country. We stood before cinema industry groups in February and pleaded with them to at least plan for the possibility that they might have to shutter their cinemas. On 24 February I started writing an article spelling out the worst-case scenario called ‘CJ Opinion: Prepare to Shut Down Your Cinemas’. We never published it, though in hindsight we wish we had. Below is as far as we got in writing it:

‘Hope for the best; prepare for the worst,” is a timeless piece of advice that applies more than ever in the time of the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) breakout. While there is still hope that the virus can be contained and not turn into a global pandemic, the best efforts seem not to have been enough to prevent it from spreading all over the globe. Cinemas are likely to be amongst the first economic victims, with audiences unlikely to want to risk spending two hours in a room full of strangers. Whether audiences abandon them or cinema decide to close the doors themselves, it is likely that cinemas will be empty for a while. So what can be done?

As one of the few English-language media publication to have regularly surveyed what has happened in China, there are several lessons to be learned. All cinemas in China have been shut since the start of the Lunar New Year (Spring Festival) holiday, which is the most important season for China’s film and cinema industry. The impact has been devastating, with hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue lost.

1. Talk to HR. Review employee contracts. Prepare for furlough. Zero hour. Communicate to staff.

2. Have a discussion with your landlords. Share the pain.

3. Talk to distributors. Apply pressure not to release films online.

4. Petition your government or local government for a tax break or;

5. Review your concessions inventory, when it expires and the best way to run it down. Popcorn to feed chickens?

6. Double check security. Empty cinemas can attract thieves, vandals, squatters and arsonists.

7. Use the opportunity for (remote) staff training, strategy meeting and regular updates.

8. Consider renovation and improvement upgrades while cinemas are shut.

9. Cancel travel and other expenditures to keep cash-burn low.

10.  Plan for reopening.

It might seem prescient now, given that cinemas in the UK closed on 17 March, three weeks after we drafted the article. But all of what cinema in the west went through had already happened in China (as we noted) and was starting to happen in countries such as Iran and Italy. We were just looking in the right direction at a bad time. The release of “Trolls World Tour” online was less of a surprise to anyone who saw what happened with the online release of the Chinese film “Lost in Russia” in late January, when its Spring Festival cinema release was cancelled.

Even we could not have anticipated the impact and length the Coronavirus pandemic would end up having on the cinema industry, and is arguably still having, as the hangover from the shutdown and pre-pandemic debt-fuelled expansion is seeing the world’s three largest exhibitor chains (AMC/Odeon, Cineworld/Regal and Vue) changing ownership structure as a result. Expecting a cinema shutdown and living through a cinema shut down are also two different things. Being fans of cinema history, we also knew that cinema had weathered wars, pandemics, terrorism and technology change, bouncing back each time. But keeping the faith in cinema at a time when 99% of screens around the world were closed (Sweden and South Korea being the exceptions) made it, if nothing else, difficult to find something to write about. Not only were cinemas closed but cinema industry events were cancelled and the act of meeting up became impossible.

That was when, through a happy accident, we came together with Filmgrail and The Big Picture. A big part of that was Rob Arthur helping to bring us all together. We had thought about a podcast and some sort of web-based event. This is how the CJCinemaSummit was born. From the stiff deer-in-the-headlight look of the presenter (I seem to recall it was I), you could tell that live crisis reporting was not something we were used to doing. It was also almost impossible to get cinema operators to come on the first show and talk, not least as most were busy with furlough and worrying how they would survive. Credit to Mariam (el Bacha) and Debbie (Stanford-Kristiansen) for agreeing to talk to us on that first show and to everyone who has joined it since. It is no longer the only option on a Thursday, other than watching another episode of “The Good Wife” on Netflix and ordering food delivery, so we have tried to evolve it into an industry forum that you can watch live or catch up on when it suits you. But we are proud of the spirit of a community coming together. And cinema did come back.

The Future
Where will the next 15 years lead us? Will we still be around? Cinema is likely to outlast us, even though there are other trade publications that have celebrated bigger birthdays than our’s. Learning from cinemas, we strive to innovate. It might seem retro to launch an email newsletter, but The Marquee has not only been something we have been planning for a while, but has also proved incredibly popular. We continue to listen to and work closely with the industry to figure out the best way to keep it informed. We are recruiting regular writers all over the world and increasing our freelancer output. We are also pushing CJ coverage further ‘upstream’ and into areas that we have not covered enough in the past. We are not going to start doing film reviews, or compete with the likes of Deadline and THR to cover film production, but don’t be surprised in the CJ of tomorrow is not exactly like the CJ you know from the past.

Like cinema we have to evolve to stay relevant, so we will. Thank you for being part of the first 15 years of our journey. Thank you to our readers, contributors, supporters, friends and sponsors. Who knows what adventures lie ahead for us and cinemas, other than the four new Avatar films.

Patrick von Sychowski
Follow me