When Christopher Nolan's Tenet was released in August, he was to cinephiles the equivalent of a knight on a shining white charger who emerges from the dust and mud of a battlefield holding aloft a victorious banner. In short, he represented hope for an industry rocked to its core by Covid-19.
Cinemas across the world had been mostly closed since March, and those that had tentatively reopened in the summer had attracted only small audiences.
The problem was, they had nothing to show. All the big 'tentpole' movies around which a cinematic summer is built were nowhere to be seen, with Top Gun: Maverick, A Quiet Place Part II, Black Widow, Godzilla vs Kong, Candyman and Pixar's Soul all deferred until the winter or next year.
No blockbusters, no punters, but Sir Christopher would save the day. The maker of The Dark Knight and Inception was nothing if not a visual showman, and the grand spectacle of his high-concept thriller would bring the punters thronging back, insofar as people can throng during a pandemic.
But friends who went to see it on my recommendation found they had the privilege of doing so in an empty cinema.
Nolan's storytelling convolutions may not have helped, but in the US, in particular, his film has fared badly. Internationally, it has barely managed to recoup its $200million budget.
Watching nervously from the sidelines were Eon Productions and Universal, poised to release cinema's next last hope, the Bond movie No Time to Die, in early November.
Tenet was a kind of highfalutin Bond movie without the jokes. A real one might have succeeded where Nolan had failed and lured nervous cinema-goers back into multiplexes.
The implications of this decision were instantly apparent. Just a day later, Cineworld announced that it was closing its 127 cinemas across the UK and Ireland.
The closure, the company said, would be temporary, and the chain might reopen before Christmas, when Wonder Woman 1984 is due to be released.
Michael McAdam, from Movie House Cinemas, with theatres in Belfast, Glengormley, Maghera and Coleraine, said that although the new Bond film would have given cinemas a much-needed boost, he was hopeful that upcoming releases would help turn the tide.
"Just this week, Sony Pictures announced seven new releases this side of Christmas, which is a good thing. At this stage, Paramount Pictures are also going ahead with the release of Pixie, which was shot in Northern Ireland last year," added Mr McAdam.
"While the bigger titles may be having their release dates parked for a while, the fact is that there are still a lot of films for people to watch."
But receipts in the UK for September were still just £2million - that's 80% down on the same period in 2019. In the US, cinemas in Los Angeles and New York have been closed for months, and it's reckoned that, if things don't change soon, almost 70% of small and medium-sized movie theatres will be forced to file for bankruptcy.
Last week, film-makers including Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, Sofia Coppola, Greta Gerwig, Michael Bay, Judd Apatow, Barry Jenkins, M. Night Shyamalan and Edgar Wright sent a joint letter to the US Congress asking for federal funds to keep cinema chains going until Hollywood starts releasing its big films again.
The moviegoing experience, they argued, was "central to American life" and cinema was "an essential industry that represents the best that American talent and creativity have to offer".
Moving words, but vaudeville was once central to American life before the movies killed it and, whatever else cinema might be, it is hardly "an essential industry".
Film-making, in any case, is not the issue; it will continue in some form or other. What's now on the endangered species list is the whole cinema distribution model.
It's been in trouble before. In the 1950s and 60s, when televisions first became ubiquitous in American homes, doomsayers confidently predicted cinema's demise. Instead, in the 1970s, it spectacularly rebounded as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas invented the summer blockbuster.
A more serious threat emerged five or so years ago, when the streaming giant Netflix decided to get into the film-making business. For obvious economic reasons, the company showed robust contempt for theatrical distribution, giving the cream of their movies brief cinema releases, others none at all.
However, Netflix no longer seems like the industry bogeyman, and has been increasing its cinema releases of late. But there's also no doubt that it is best-placed to emerge as the dominant movie-making force post-Covid, a rival to the giant Disney corporation, which also has its own bespoke streaming service.
Disney, though, may not be so sanguine about replacing cinema distribution with streaming following Mulan's lacklustre performance online.
The sad point of all this is that running cinemas may quickly become economically unviable.
If the Covid-19 crisis continues unabated through to 2021, many chains will be forced to close. Punters, especially younger ones, may simply get out of the habit of going to the cinema.
Big-budget films may in future be stream-released as a matter of course, and going to a cinema might become a purely arthouse, elitist experience, like going to the opera.
So what? you might ask. We all have televisions half the size of the wall now anyway. What's the difference? The difference is the shared communal experience, choosing to go and watch a particular movie in a packed auditorium, where one is overwhelmed by sight, sound and spectacle.
I go to sparsely populated Press screenings mostly, where comedies, in particular, tend to suffer. When I and 10 or 15 other professional grumps settle down to watch a movie that's supposed to be funny, the laughs often expire in the empty seats around us.
Watch the same film in a crowded auditorium and the communal mirth drags you in. This is not so bad, after all, you start to think.
Watching films on a big screen can be a special experience. I, for one, would really miss it.
There's a real chance, as well, that the way movies are made would be altered by the absence of cinemas: directors and studios would stop thinking so big, reducing their grand dreams to suit smaller screens and budgets.
If movies got smaller, it would be a pity. It seems unthinkable that cinema as a mass popular entertainment could disappear, but if Covid-19's grip is not loosened soon, it's a real possibility.