Movie Theaters are Dead. Long Live Movie Theaters!

Filmgoing is done for now. But is it done for?

COVID-19 just dealt Hollywood a serious body blow. On Monday, AMC Theaters, the largest chain in the United States, announced that it was closing all its outposts until at least May 1 and possibly until mid-June. That also goes for competitor Regal Cinemas, as well as cool-kid multiplexes like Alamo Drafthouse, ArcLight Cinemas, and Landmark Theaters.

Sorry, James Bond: there’s no time for No Time to Die. Ditto for Black Widow, A Quiet Place Part II, and Mulan.

Cinema buffs already know that this week’s SXSW bacchanal is cancelled, and next month’s Tribeca Film Festival is postponed. The Cannes Film Festival keeps issuing reassurances about its traditional May dates, but no one is taking that seriously anymore.

Netflix is laughing all the way to the bank. So is Disney+, of course. Streamers are surging. Universal is even performing some digital triage for their current releases. Starting Friday, the studio is making The Hunt, The Invisible Man and Emma available on rental platforms like Apple TV and other myriad On Demand services.

So is moviegoing dead? Riiiight. It’s about as dead as going to bars, eating out at restaurants, and bowling. (How is bowling still alive, by the way?). Sure, you can’t go now. But, in time, movie theaters will re-open and you’ll go again. And again. Just you watch.

Life Without Movie Theaters

What’s life without movie theaters? It’s wonderful. Enjoy the break. Take a walk through the park. I did.

But don’t forget: this is only a break. Moviegoing begets moviegoing. And watching at home encourages watching with a crowd. Just look at Austin Powers. The first film was a modest success at the box office in 1997. Then, nine months later, it was such a hit on VHS and DVD that it drove people to theaters for two successive sequels.

If we’re learning anything about this virus, it’s that human beings are innately social animals. We ache to be around each other. We want to be part of a crowd. Laughter is infectious. Crying in the dark is encouraged. We can shroud ourselves in shadows while also being part of a group. It’s togetherness without all the eye contact, socializing for shy people.

Why do people still go to The Rocky Horror Picture Show after almost 50 years? Why do they seek out revival houses to see movies they can get online at the Criterion Channel?

I’ve watched films at home. It’s great and super-convenient. But it’s not the same. I goaded a friend into joining me for John Carpenter’s 1981 B-movie dystopia Escape from New York late one night. Killer sound system, 100-inch projector screen in my living room. We both fell asleep. I goaded that same friend into watching 1973’s The Wicker Man at midnight at a local movie theater. It blew our minds.

 

There’s a reason Universal made Emma available on Friday but pushed back the new Fast and Furious blockbuster F9 almost an entire year, to April 2021. Because we like watching explosions with other people. It’s gladiatorial.

Speaking of which, in 2017, a friend of mine had to write an article about the Fast and the Furious movies timed to the latest installment’s release. I’m personally indifferent and was going to skip it. Looked dumb. He texted me last-minute: want to come see The Fate of the Furious with him? Right now? Fuck it, why not, I thought. My night was free. And, yes, it was dumb. But I had a blast.

The Thrill Of Discovery

There’s a reason film festivals exist. Just ask the crowd I was with when Parasite debuted at Cannes last year. An entire theater of jaded film journalists burst into giddy applause when they saw the faked bloody handkerchief pulled from the trash. It’s the thrill of discovery. Together.

Movie theaters, TV shows, home video: these things find a way to co-exist. They’ve all co-existed in one form or another for decades. In 1930, 65% of the American population went to the pictures each week. That’s frankly insane. And it’s been in decline ever since. Of course it has! Because of radio, TV, VCRs, Playstation, Netflix, you name it. But, 90 years later, people still go to the pictures. Maybe not each week—the average adult only goes four times a year—but they still go.

Why do people still go to arenas and watch sports, when they can sit at home and do the same thing with arguably a more enhanced experience? Because people are social animals. There’s an electric charge when you’re around like-minded people all simultaneously going through the same rush of emotions.

I’ll always remember the excited woman who jumped up and shouted “I love you Wesley!” when I watched the schlock actioner Passenger 57 in Greenwich Village in 1992. Or the person who screamed out loud in terror when I saw The Amityville Horror in a 1930s Art Deco theater in 1979. Or the toddler who desperately curled into a ball trying to fall asleep while his parents watched a midnight screening of 1994’s Speed on its opening night.

I’ll always remember the audience’s gasp of astonishment after every single episode of Kiseslowski’s The Decalog when the 10 made-for-Polish-TV movies from 1989 were finally allowed to play theatrically in the U.S. in the mid-’90s. Or another audience’s equally astonished gasp at L.A.’s Cinerama Dome when Peter Parker slowly disintegrated on the opening day of 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War.

Or the 3,000 people at the 2002 Sarajevo Film Festival who watched an outdoor screening of Almodovar’s Talk To Her in the courtyard of a 19th century apartment building and were so silent you could hear a pin drop.

When I lived in L.A. in the 1990s, I haughtily dismissed the city as a heathen town of mainstream movie fanatics. But there were always lines around the block to see a Tarkovsky movie. Any Tarkovsky movie. Every Tarkovsky movie. Most of the Soviet filmmaker’s works were available on home video, but films like his weren’t meant for a vacuum. They serve a collective hunger.

Sure, you go to a theater to see a movie. But you also go to commune, to be a face in the crowd, to see through other people’s eyes, to lose yourself, or to find yourself. When you’re at home, you’re comfortable. That’s fantastic. But you don’t go out to a movie theater to be comfortable. You go out to feel alive.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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