What if they took away the movies and no one cared?
In November 2019, before the fall of humanity, I attended the opening night of Dark Waters. This movie, adapted from a true story about a chemical corporation poisoning West Virginia, stars Mark Ruffalo. Dark Waters is a throwback film to old-school Hollywood liberalism, when movies felt like journalism and crusaded for causes. Decent and well-made, it received some awards consideration but no actual awards, and made not a dent at the box office overall. Still, on opening night, I had to sit in the front row because the 300-person theater where I saw it in Austin had sold out.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
If Dark Waters opened this weekend, it would be lucky to draw a dozen people.
Austin is anomalous to the country as a whole. We have nice cinemas that show a good variety, a population that enjoys movies and has substantial disposable income, and greater-than-average connections to the film industry. But theater attendance this year has been drier than a Nick Offerman line delivery.
I spent the better part of 2020 and 2021 bleating that it was safe to go to the movies, that when people called theaters COVID superspreaders, they were either greatly exaggerating the risk or totally fabricating it. Even though I was correct, very clear now that no one was listening to me, or the few other lonely voices who were saying it’s OK to see movies in person.
Look at how West Side Story bombed over the weekend. Maybe film people were over-invested in a Steven Spielberg reshoot of a 60-year-old musical. My parents would have loved it, but they’ve been dead for several years. Basically 75 percent of that film’s potential audience already died, and of the remaining 25 percent, probably half are still afraid to go to the movies at all. There have been a few hits this year, but most movies, large and small, have underperformed, underwhelmed, and disappointed.
COVID is one factor. The media fear factory has persuaded plenty of people that a theater visit is as risky as stopping by the tuberculosis ward. But signs of cinema’s decline were already there before the pandemic. Theaters were charging too much for tickets and concessions for an increasingly shabby experience. Other than the occasional superhero tentpole, Hollywood had totally lost touch with what audiences want.
As my colleague Richard Rushfield at the growing Ankler media empire has repeatedly pointed out, people under 25 rarely go to the movies at all. It’s not even in their top five ways to spend their leisure and entertainment time. So you have a bloated industry with a decaying infrastructure producing content for a rapidly aging and permanently terrified audience. That’s just not a recipe for long success, or any kind of success.
Even with entertainment that old or at least middle-aged people like, movies no longer have anything close to primacy. The best superhero movies this year, WandaVision and Loki, were TV shows. The best Star Wars movie in a generation, The Mandalorian, is a TV show. The Lord of the Rings, the most artistically successful genre series of all time is coming back. As a TV show. What We Do In The Shadows was a cult indie film. But it’s a hugely successful TV show, heading into its fourth season.
I go to the movies at least three times a month, and the scene is always the same. For indie or art films where the theater might have been half-full pre-COVID, there are always a half-dozen wary-looking masked retirees. For mainstream releases where previously I’d have to buy a ticket weeks in advance, the theaters are half-full at best. When I went to see the long-awaited James Bond movie a week after it opened, there were three people in the theater, and then the picture went out for the last 15 minutes, so we had to listen to Bond’s lame death scene like it was a radio play.
Like with so many things COVID-related, moviegoing died because it already had so many comorbidities. The risks were high, and it’s succumbing. I will continue to go to the movies because it’s a habit, and a hobby, and also I don’t have a lot of other things to do.
There are others like me, millions even. The movies aren’t dead dead. They have their adherents, and the art form will live on, like theater, and ballet, and opera, and literature, and classical orchestras. But it’s clear that the masses have moved along. Because it’s not as though people aren’t gathering. The basketball arenas and concerts and restaurants are all full, or close to full. The theaters, on the other hand, remain the Atacama, even on a Saturday afternoon.
I did a little search for “The Movies Are Dead,” and I came up with a GQ piece from 2011, more than 10 years ago, by the great film writer Mark Harris. His thesis were that Hollywood had lost its imagination, and he used as an example the greenlighting of Top Gun 2. He proved a little ahead of himself, as most of the highest-grossing blockbusters ever, and also some legitimately great films, have appeared in the last decade.
Top Gun 2, now titled “Maverick,” however, remains on the shelf, even though it was supposed to come out in 2020. Like with the new Ghostbusters, or the new Bond, or the new just about anything that Disney doesn’t make, people have just lost interest. What would happen if they took the movies away? Well, we tried that experiment, and we realized: People would just stop caring. It was a nice run.
RIP The Movies, 1903-2021. The floors were too sticky, but we had a lot of fun.