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Is it:

Naturally, she assumed that once there was a new film everybody would be eager to go and see it.

Or:

Naturally, she assumed that once there were a new film everybody would be eager to go and see it.

Since it is a hypothetical situation, "were" should be used to signify subjunctive mood, so the second one is correct.

Is my thinking right?

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The English subjunctive is used sparingly by native speakers (some never use it) and is much less often used than in French, Spanish, or German.

The subjunctive has two forms:

  1. The plain form of the verb, identical in form to a bare infinitive - some people prefer to reserve the term "subjunctive" for this form. It is found (a) in a few set phrases such as "so be it" and "long live the Queen", and (b) especially in American English (but sometimes in British English too) in subordinate clauses after certain verbs (primarily of ordering or suggestion), e.g. "he demanded that it be done".

  2. Identical in form to the simple past, except for the verb "to be", for which "were" is used where "was" would normally be found. Some call this isolated form the "irrealis".

Lexico summarises the uses of the subjunctive here: https://www.lexico.com/grammar/when-to-use-the-subjunctive

The irrealis "were" is found after "if", "as though", and after "wish" in phrases such as "I wish that it were" (occasionally, the semi-archaic form "I would that it were" is seen or heard). It is also used in inversions ("were it a hot day" = "if it were a hot day").

It is difficult to think of any situation where "once" or "she assumed that" or the two combined would trigger the subjunctive. In the unlikely event that they did, it would be optional.

It is always better to err on the side of using the indicative (not the subjunctive). Otherwise you may fall into the trap of hypercorrection. Most people consider it acceptable to replace irrealis "were" with "was" in most cases, but not the other way round. (The linguist Geoff Pullum claims that even in the case of "if I were you", "if I was you" is "universally" accepted as an alternative - see https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3038 - though this may be an overstatement.)

In your sentence

she assumed that once there was a new film everybody would be eager to go and see it.

The "once"-clause isn't part of the assumption as such. Unlike "if", the word "once" presupposes that a new film will be released. At any rate the supposition is strong enough that the subjunctive isn't an option, and "was" is the sole correct option here.

You asked why we use 'would' and yet can't use a subjunctive 'were' here.

We can say "If a new film is released, people will go to see it" and we can also say "If a new film were released, people would go to see it". But while we can say "Once a new film is released, people will go to see it", we can't say *"Once a new film were released, people would go to see it" (nor does the version with "was" work, except when discussing the past!). So "once a new film was released, people would go to see it" is the temporally backshifted version of "once a new film is released, people will go to see it". It is backshifted because we are discussing a belief that was held in the past, not backshifted as a form of modal remoteness as in "If it were...".

(You can say "If he gave me a job I would be happy to start immediately", but you can't say (as a complete sentence discussing a hypothetical present/future) *"When he gave me a job I would be happy to start immediately" - unless you are discussing the past, e.g. "I said that when he gave me a job I would be happy to start immediately". "When" and "once" don't allow for remote or counterfactual conditionality.)

The original sentence spoken must have been "once ... is..., ...will...". You can't say "Once/when X was/were..., ...would...". "Would" in this sentence is a backshifted "will" rather than a true conditional.

You can say "If X happened, I would do Y" as a reference to a hypothetical condition X, but you can't say "When/once X happened, I would do Y", unless you're discussing the past (e.g. "Whenever X happened, I would [=used to] do Y") or recounting a past statement (e.g. "I said that when X happened, I would do Y").

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  • Identical in form to the simple past, except for the verb "to be", for which "were" is used where "was" would normally be found. What about other verbs? I mean is this subjunctive use too: I wish he (had) fought more valiantly!? And here: He looked as though he had/had got a disease. @rjpond. Apr 20 at 9:03
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    Arguably. There are two ways of looking at it. One is the traditional way, to say that a "past subjunctive" exists for all verbs and for all persons, but is (except "were") identical to the past indicative due to syncretism. The other is to say that the "past subjunctive" survives only as an isolated form, "were", and the rest isn't subjunctive in any meaningful sense. Overall, I favour the latter view, because the fact that many speakers replace even "were" with "was" means that, under the former view, we can barely ever say which mood was used.
    – rjpond
    Apr 20 at 9:08
  • since the main clause has the modal verb "would" to represent subjunctive, why wouldn't the subordinate clause beginning with "once" use subjunctive mood? Apr 20 at 11:09
  • @HypnoticBuggyWraithVirileBevy I have updated my answer with my latest thoughts on this. I hope they make some sense.
    – rjpond
    Apr 20 at 11:42

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