The Greatest Trick The Devil Ever Pulled Was Convincing People Movies Weren’t Safe

Nearly a quarter of ‘Barbie’s’ audience hadn’t been to the theater in years

Last week the trades reported on a survey from a company called Quorum, which I guess is a company that does surveys. This particular survey said that nearly a quarter of the people who’d seen ‘Barbie’ hadn’t been to the movie theater since “before the pandemic.” Technically, 11 percent said they shut down when COVID hit while another 11 “couldn’t remember” the last time they’d been to the movies.

On the one hand, you could see this as great news: even amidst the catastrophic Hollywood strikes, studios are still releasing stuff that people want to see, in record-setting numbers. But the poll also made me very sad. Nearly a quarter of the audience of a generational blockbuster hadn’t been to the movies in decades. Why did it have to be like that?

I remember the last time I went to the movies: It was last week. I’m going tomorrow. And Friday. But beyond that, I never stopped going to the movies. Texas Governor Greg Abbott “reopened” the state in May 2020, before COVID really got going here. On May 5, 2020, I drove 20 miles to Kyle, Texas, and saw a movie in an open theater. It was Vin Diesel in ‘Bloodshot,’ which had opened just before the world shut down in March. The movie was complete garbage, but me and the five maskless Mexican guys in the back row enjoyed it anyway.

That was a glorious summer of empty theaters. I saw Russell Crowe in ‘Unhinged.‘ I saw ‘Tenet.’ One hot August night, I drove downtown to watch a grim screening of ‘Blade Runner’ at the Paramount Theater. My wife and I took several unappealing but still somewhat fun trips to local pop-up drive-ins. I went to see Vince Vaughn in ‘Freaky’, and even saw an in-person screening of the wretched ‘Wonder Woman 1984.’

It never stopped. I saw every movie nominated for Best Picture at the 2021 Oscars in the theaters, with the exceptions of ‘The Father,’ which I watched on an airplane, and ‘Sound of Metal,’ which I watched at home on Amazon Prime. In every case, I was one of a half-dozen people who dared leave their house for an in-person screening.

I will never forget those days. I felt like Burgess Meredith after the nuclear bomb in that Twilight Zone. There was time enough at last. It was glorious.

But I couldn’t just quietly go to the movies. I had to advocate for going to the movies. I had to write about it, mostly on this site, and I got an extremely nasty response. People called me a “murderer” on the reg for daring to suggest that maybe it was OK to go to the movies. They said that I was risking my life, and the lives of others.

Even now, some people believe that. On my Facebook page, when I posted a link to the Quorum story, someone wrote that they went to see ‘Dune’ at the end of 2021, and that’s probably where their partner contracted the long COVID that will debilitate them for the rest of their lives. “Was the movie worth it?” they asked.

Of course it was. You could have gotten sick anywhere, from anybody. Off all the tricks the COVID devil ever pulled, one of the most sinister ones was persuading the vast majority that they were going to get very sick, or even die, if they dared leave the house to venture to the cinema. For the rest of our lives, a reasonable percentage of people, polled or not, are going to continue to believe that.

Whenever I bring this topic up, people tell me to stop talking about it. But as the most tsk-tsk-y of Internet people are fond of reminding us, COVID is not over. The authorities planted the seed and forever altered the landscape. The soft martial law of lockdowns and mask mandates and business closures worked for a while, scared enough people. Society will try it again given the opportunity and sense of emergency. Moviegoing is tenuous and vulnerable, but no matter what, I will be sitting there, alone in the dark. If a poll-taker approaches me, I’ll say, hell yes, I went to the movies. I went every day I could. And when I die, it won’t be because of something I saw at the theater.


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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 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. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has 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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