The last film I saw in a movie theater was The Invisible Man, starring Elizabeth Moss, in February 2020. I remember it clearly because the theater was almost comically disgusting. There were piles of garbage in almost every row and lining the aisles. I remember the confused looks on people’s faces when they walked in and thinking “no wonder movie theaters are struggling to survive.” Then March 2020 happened.
I’m a big proponent of communal artistic experiences. The past year and a half has strongly affirmed my belief that, while there are some benefits to virtual entertainment, there is no substitute for in-person live theater. Movies are different of course. For decades now, theaters have tried to make the case that there is value to seeing a movie on the big screen along with a bunch of strangers. I really want to agree, but some changes will have to be made.
Why Go to a Movie Theater?
Sharing an emotional experience in a group setting is absolutely awesome. If you’ve never seen a major horror movie or comedy on opening night in a packed house, I cannot recommend it enough. It’s the simultaneous scream, the moment when everyone gasps at once, or laughs, or cheers, that creates the experience of going to the movies. (The absolute best is the group scream followed by the group laugh at the scream.) It doesn’t really have anything to do with the size of the screen or the quality of the sound, except insofar as they serve to encourage this experience. I don’t really want a silent theater. I want a theater that is loudly reacting to what’s happening onscreen. This is what makes the movies great, and what sets a movie theater apart from a stage show. Because the audience is free to do more than just laugh. You can’t distract the actors.
Does the Experience Still Hold Up?
My experience returning to the movies was basically fine. We wore a mask the entire time, which was to be expected. But the crowd was pretty dead, and I’m not sure why. This was A Quiet Place, Part II, after all. I was hoping for some screaming. (Quick and dirty review: I basically liked it. Solid monster film and solid continuation of the original. Very much the middle movie in a trilogy.) But the theater was almost awkwardly silent. The only talking was the distracting, annoying kind. I’m not sure if this is because the combination of wearing masks and sitting one couple per row killed the atmosphere, or if it was because this was later in the run and the very eager theater-goers had already seen it. Or – and I’m starting to think this may be the case – people don’t really know how to see a movie in theaters any more. We watch movies in theaters the same way we watch them on our couch. And if we’ve going to do that, what’s the point?
Can We Save Movie Theaters?
We need to reexamine why it is we go to the movies. It’s not just to see the movie before it’s released. (In the Heights, the other early summer blockbuster, was released simultaneously streaming and in theaters.) Seeing movies at home is more comfortable, and you can take bathroom breaks whenever you want. Theaters need to start thinking about how to encourage an atmosphere of comradery and celebration. We are here because we want to have this experience together because togetherness enhances the experience. I think Alamo Drafthouse-style venues will be more popular in the future. I also think airings of classic movies, film festivals, and old-school double features ought to make a comeback. Of course, all of this will be a lot more possible as COVID numbers continue to decline significantly. It’s still too early.
But an experience that’s just okay is going to have a really hard time competing with my couch. My couch, after all, doesn’t cost seventeen bucks.