A career critic says: Stay away
There’s been a lot of handwringing in the news about moviegoers’ failure to return to cinemas when they rolled out Tenet and Mulan earlier this month. As a critic, I should probably be arguing for you to take a chance on the movies again, seeing as some of my income depends on it. But you know what? I’m not sure that it truly does anymore, and, frankly, I don’t want to go back to the movies yet, and I don’t think you should, either.
In terms of people I’d entrust with my health, corporate cinema chain owners are near the bottom of the list. Do you recall the musk of an under-ventilated Cinemark? Or trying to hold your broken stall door shut while peeing in an AMC restroom? I mean, just Google the name of any major chain and “bedbugs.” These were never paragons of cleanliness. They’re greasy, understaffed places we settled for when we wanted the big-screen experience. (A caveat: Independently owned arthouse theaters, and smaller chains like Alamo and Landmark, generally did better, but they don’t represent the majority of where people in this country see movies.)
The chief executive of Cinemark just told the New York Times that “recent customer surveys had shown 97 percent satisfaction with safety protocols.” Which customers? The ones who were excited about coming back to the theater no matter the risks? Well, I’d imagine they’re sort of in the tank for the survey. A quick look at Cinemark’s safety protocols lets you know that they are bravely “asking customers for cooperation” (because that’s always worked so well with theater rule enforcement in the past) and requiring people to wear masks–except when they’re eating or drinking, which for most people at the movies is most of the time.
I got into this business because I absolutely adored going to the movies. Sitting in the vast dark, allowing a great film on a huge screen to subsume you, the shared emotional ride with the people around you: when it’s good, it’s second to none. People have been paying me to do it for most of my adult life. It was my gleeful description of my job for years: I get MONEY (yeah, not a lot, but still) to go to the MOVIES. In the middle of the workday, even!
Over the past five years or so, though, that refrain began to lose its luster. Partly because with middle age comes crankiness. But there truly has been a demonstrable decline, in every aspect of the experience. Major cinema chains have been in a state of financial free fall for years, while the fragile social contract that enables communal movie-watching has been steadily dissolving.
I’m always perplexed now when I read a colleague in film journalism waxing nostalgic about wanting to get back to the theater, to the romance of it all. Which part? Is it the house lights that they now leave halfway-dim all the way through the show, lest a mass shooter burst in? Or the firefly-like sparkle of one phone light, then another as audiences text their way through the movie? The ever-present threat of vermin in the rarely-cleaned seats and aisles, or the wafting hot-dog odor as your chatty neighbor horks down a footlong and chases it with nachos and a slushee?
Pre-pandemic selfishness aside, even in the most responsible mask-wearing areas, it only takes one asshole to turn an evening’s entertainment into a super-spreader event. And we’ve all seen that asshole. He is everywhere, his mask is around his chin, and he’s ready for a fight. Are we really going to ask movie ushers, at low wages, to take on this cretin? The employees understandably don’t seem too keen on it, according to a recent Washington Post piece.
Given their desperate need for cash, I’m a little surprised movie chains haven’t figured out that drive-ins are the hot new thing. With a little creativity, and maybe some heat lamps, they could be converting their parking lots into makeshift venues. You can have this idea for free, guys! In the meantime, studios are releasing movies we can enjoy in the less-exciting but safer confines of our own homes. Do I really need to see the new Bill and Ted on the big screen? I do not. Keanu’s magic will shimmer through on even the smallest TV.
Plus, critics now have access to even the major movie releases via digital screener, as it should always have been. I say this as someone who for a year was too incapacitated to go to a theater because of my health. Making movies equally available to writers who maybe can’t get to the cinema, for any variety of chronic health concerns, widens the gate for who gets to do the reviewing.
Ultimately, I remain hopeful that movie theaters will figure it out. I’d be sad if they disappeared forever. But their survival, and our own, depends on a drastic reevaluation of the contract into which we all enter when we go. As well as a lot of human willingness to do the right thing. As a society, it doesn’t seem like we’re quite up to it yet.