The Arclight is Dead. It Didn’t Have to Die.

Government regulations and a scared media killed it, not the virus

When news came down yesterday evening that Arclight Cinemas was closing for good, Film Twitter lit up with reminiscences. Movie lovers flooded Instagram with pictures of popcorn and the Cinerama Dome. Facebook, as usual, was full of “heartbroken” and “gutted.” It’s a wonder people have any guts left, things gut them so often. COVID, you bastard, everyone said. You’ve claimed yet another victim.

Yet did it really have to be this way? It’s not like COVID killed the Arclight. People are talking like the beloved Southern California movie mini-chain died on a respirator after contracting coronavirus on Spring Break. No, the Arclight died because of California’s absurdly stringent pandemic restrictions. If you hold something under water long enough, it’ll eventually drown. Meanwhile, professional movie lovers, many of whom haven’t seen a movie in a theater in more than a year, and have, in fact, actively discouraged others from doing so, were standing on the edge of the pool, saying, or at least hoping, that it would be fine. This was for the public health.

The fact is, we’ve known since at least September, and probably before, that it was perfectly safe to go to the movies during the pandemic. You cannot trace a single case of COVID-19 to movie theater attendance, anywhere in the world. But throughout the last year, people have unfairly vilified no one institution, except for maybe schools, more than movie theaters. When brave souls went to the movies to see ‘Tenet,’ or ‘Unhinged,’ or whatever other stray pieces of content leaked into distributorship, many of the same people who are now garment-rending over the end of the Arclight were calling them reckless, murderers, super-spreaders.

And now the Alamo Drafthouse, which, unlike the Arclight, was able to re-open some locations in the last year, has declared bankruptcy. The Arclight, and its magnificent Cinerama Dome, no longer exist. But at least we have a million “the last movie I saw in person” posts.

Now, since I’ve actually been going to the movies the whole time, and have repeatedly called for people to save the theater industry, I’m going to indulge in my own Arclight memories. I lived in Los Angeles for five professionally challenging years. Even as the parent of a grade schooler, I still went to the Arclight at least once a week. It was a pioneer of comfortable seating, of curated programming, of flexible showtimes, of assigned seats, and of decent, non-stale concessions. The Arclight was always showing interesting movies, with generally respectful audiences at a time when theaters had grown chaotic. I loved going to a Tuesday early show and sitting in a mostly-empty auditorium, watching whatever. It was great.

It’s been a decade since I’ve lived in L.A., so maybe the rest of the industry has caught up with the Arclight. I see stories floating around of botched screenings, bad picture quality, rude crowds, and indifferent teenage employees, though no one has anything bad to say about the Cinerama Dome. Still, the last time I saw a movie at an Arclight, I went to an obscure late-afternoon showing of ‘The Florida Project’ with my brother-in-law and teenage niece, who’s heading to film school in the fall. When she ends up making movies, who will show them? Not the Arclight. And future film students in Southern California, who are as prevalent as Dr. Fauci TV appearances, won’t have anywhere to see a difficult, idiosyncratic movie like ‘The Florida Project’ in Sherman Oaks at 4 on a Thursday afternoon.

Was it worth the sacrifice? The Arclight is gone, and hundreds of thousands of Americans are still dead from COVID. None of those, or at least very few, went to the movies at any time during the pandemic. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe if we’d kept theaters open and had messaged the whole time that it’s safe to go see ‘Black Widow’ or James Bond or the new Wes Anderson, or Fast and Furious 23 or whatever, that seven million people would be dead and we’d be tossing human remains in the streets. But I somehow doubt it. And if that had happened, and I was wrong, then we’d have bigger problems than saying “I told you so.”

You should mourn the Arclight. You should miss going to the theaters there. But its death wasn’t inevitable. It died because we were afraid, and because the government refused to let it operate. This isn’t some sort of passive death from a virus. The Arclight is a murder victim. And, like in the kind of lame Kenneth Branagh remake of ‘Murder On The Orient Express,’ which some of you probably saw at the Arclight, you all bear a little piece of the blame.

Arclight
“Someone on this very train killed the Arclight Theater. And my little gray cells suspect….you!”

 

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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