We Used To Go To The Movies

If you don’t live in a major market, the theatrical experience as you once knew it is kaput

“Grandma, tell us about the last time you went to the movies!”

Yes, gather round, children. One balmy evening long ago, people used to crowd into a palatial auditorium and snug into soiled velvet seats with tubs of hot buttered snack. We enjoyed a magnificent screen, a technicolor drama, hooting and hollering along with our brethren. We smoked. YES! We chewed. We clutched each other in the dark. It was: the movies.

And by 2023, it was over.  The theatrical experience as any fan or critic ever knew it, is kaput.

The ghosts are rattling their chains; one can hardly blame them. My grandmother was one of the first Nickelodeon piano players! My father took his own nickel every Saturday to see the talkies throughout the Depression. Both parents taught me the entire Hollywood compendium of the twentieth century. I marked my coming of age with the films that changed my life.

It’s over now.

Only a handful of American cities still have theaters screening the adult films that are being made today.

And by adult, I don’t mean X-rated; I mean intellectually competent. One cannot live on  juvenalia and Lucky Charms.

© Honey Lee Cottrell and Susie Bright, 1989 “On Our Backs,” 1989, at the York Theater, San Francisco. Yes, that’s me and Nan Kinney & the very helpful York popcorn butch. We had to get that pictorial done THAT DAY and all the other models fell through!

Did you know, in the global theatrical film market, there is only one US city that appears in the top ten? That would be New York. That’s it.

Did you know most Oscar nominees this year never went wide? They didn’t even reach 1000 screens. That’s one helluva velvet rope.

For most towns, burgs, suburbs— and even hip meccas like my own Santa Cruz— we are left with limited movie fare that is, frankly, for children and young teens. It’s rather expensive and smelly babysitting.

“But COVID!” you say. Box office sales dropped from $11.3 billion to $2 billion, from 2019 to 2020.

“But STREAMING,” you insist.

Let us unpack.

Whatever your risk tolerance for COVID transmission, it’s obvious that social engagement is back, and has been for some time. People are enjoying concerts, eating out, shopping—mingling with others, indoors. Masked or not. The HEPA filters are running.

Ironically, movie palaces have far fewer people than the crowded bar next door. I can easily sit in the theater with a 20-foot perimeter of nobody around me. “Germs” aren’t the problem.

Streaming? Of course I love watching shows every night; I became an instant addict. The early days were intoxicating. Now it’s a battle. I want more, and I’m not alone.

Adequate broadband service is expensive, yet still hilariously unreliable. The number of competing, inadequate streaming companies play a pricey shell game. It’s stacked against experienced viewers.  It’s personal, alright. Proprietary gatekeeping by each studio is so inane that at regular intervals, they cut off my home viewing, paranoid that I’m trying to monetize my little projector and screen. Endless nights in Susie’s living room have been destroyed by the streamers letting us down.

Maybe you’ve licked all those problems. You remain sanguine in your La-Z-Boy, lighting a bowl, embarking on a binge.

Not enough. We the People have been cut out of a collective experience, an aesthetic and primal moment, where friends and strangers gathered to witness something big. Something intimate. I miss the old “Have you seen?” conversations that weren’t about watching alone. —Laughing at the same time with a crowd. Screaming in the same second. —The communal stun of silence after a truly amazing show, when the credits rolled. That intake of breath.

The ugly secret before COVID,  before the hegemony of streaming was this: the theaters and the producers drove away their core adult audience. The physical environment was garbage; the menu was one-plate. Endless franchise films and remakes were not bringing juicy crowds to theaters. The money people were taking without giving back.

“But I want to watch Ant-Man!” you cry. How odd to be under the illusion that it’s a choice. Movies like Ant-Man wouldn’t exist if avant-garde animation and fantasy creators hadn’t paved the way, many years ago. Their weird little movies used to play in your town, and they inspired people. Now those screenings are gone. The titles we see as “mainstream” today once started out as a cult, and it was only through widespread popularization and collective grass roots experiences, that a new genre came to play. The cream is supposed to rise to the top— but it can’t in a vacuum.

I just checked out the San Francisco movie listings, 75 miles from my house. That’s my closest legit movie hub. There are 25 first-fun features, not available anywhere else closer than Los Angeles. The rest of us bums get our gruel of Disney animation, and the stoner YA thrills of sneaking into Cocaine Bear. (I was asked to sign a permission slip for high school fans, and I did so gladly!).

I love that the kids, at least, want to get away from their parents and have some fun out of the house. They want to be with their generation in a space of their own.

The thing is, I to do that, too—I want to be close with my people, having a blast, watching movies that will change my way of seeing things. Seeing is everything, and this dreadful blindness they’ve dealt us is no way to live at all.

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Susie Bright

Susie Bright is an author, editor, and critic known for her work at Audible Studios, The New York Times Book Review, Playboy, Jezebel, Salon, On Our Backs, Talking Points Memo, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Review of Books, Esquire, the Criterion Collection, as well as her contribution to The Celluloid Closet, Bound, The Virgin Machine, Transparent, and the Criterion reissue of Belle de Jour.

3 thoughts on “We Used To Go To The Movies

  • March 13, 2023 at 5:43 pm

    Totally 👍💯 And I remember that photoshoot💗

  • March 14, 2023 at 10:46 am

    I remember this photoshoot, no models, no problem!! York popcorn butch, love it!

  • March 16, 2023 at 7:13 pm

    Hardly anyone actually wants to watch Ant-Man, amusingly enough. Disney cannibalized the rest of the film industry so badly that people have forgotten theaters even have movies that aren’t Disney tentpoles. And that’s assuming the theater is lucky enough that Disney isn’t squeezing them dry on distribution by hoarding all the screens. Their falling profits would be poetic if they hadn’t managed to gut punch everyone else so badly on the way down that a Top Gun revival, of all things, provided a glimmer of hope.


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