On Wednesday, the world’s biggest movie chain announced it may not bounce back from the financial damage of the pandemic shutdown. AMC Theaters has said it is “generating effectively no revenue,” hasn’t for some time, and doesn’t see the forecast improving anytime soon.
As a professional moviegoer and lifelong cinephile, I’d like to venture a suggestion: Maybe the crumbling of Big Cinema has been a long time coming?
It seems likely — and some surveys confirm — that even after lockdown measures wane, people will favor streaming movies at home over the risks associated with going out. But I think we’re at a moment of great potential for an overhaul of the whole business of cinema.
While I have immense sympathy for the many workers whose jobs will be affected by this precipitous downfall of AMC and other big movie chains, the cinematic experience was in free-fall long before Covid-19 made it downright dangerous.
Had you been to AMC, or any other major movie chain, recently before the pandemic hit? Noticed anything amiss? Barely-staffed lobbies and concession stands. Grubby bathrooms. Theater seats with waxy stains, wobbly armrests, and ancient Milk Duds encrusted on the bottoms of the cup holders. Overhead lights with a decent chance of being left on through the trailers and, not infrequently, right into the feature film. Screens with rips and holes and weird bright spots that made even the most flawless actors appear acne-ridden. Inexperienced projectionists who left the wrong settings on the lens and made 3D movies look like they were shot through a mud puddle.
Everywhere, there was the overwhelming sense that nobody was paying attention.
Smaller independent art houses were suffering, too; even many of the ones operated with lots of love were threadbare and badly in need of technology updates. Countless tiny venues shuttered around the country, heartbreakingly, in 2018 and 2019.
Sure, people were still going to the movies, but not with the same sense of reverence they once did, and not in the same numbers.
I’m not going to argue audiences were ever truly well-behaved, but recent years have seen an explosion of ticketholders devoting about a third of their attention to what was on the screen, the rest focused on texting, talking, hoovering chicken fingers into their faces or rummaging around in plastic bags for a second box of chicken fingers. Blame couch culture, blame the iPhone bubble: Movie audiences had become a narcissistic nightmare.
Still, I went. Often for the job, sometimes just for fun. I’m not a sports person or a religion person; movies are my church. Always the same thrill of anticipation as I settle into my chair, anticipating that zen moment in darkness before the show starts, hoping for a moment of transcendence via high art or adrenaline-spiking horror or sentimental rom-com.
My whole life is lit up with movie milestones. Being awed by the bombast of “Star Wars,” one of my first big screen experiences. Getting schooled in 1990s indie cinema at Chicago’s Music Box, where if you were lucky there was a live pipe-organ performance beforehand. Stumbling upon a cult-fan screening of “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” in L.A.’s Westwood, the crowd shouting along with the dialogue. The feeling of grandeur upon entering the Ziegfeld Theater in midtown New York, and the kindness and tireless energy of its veteran ushers. Seeing “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at the West Village’s IFC Center, John Cameron Mitchell himself popping in to introduce it. Having my mind blown by the 3D magic of “Avatar” on the biggest IMAX screen I could find. The crackling energy of “Get Out” with a packed, mostly-black crowd at the mall in Indiana, Pennsylvania.
So what happens now?
This pandemic has provided the opportunity for a reboot in so many areas. We’ve seen it in nature, where air and water pollution has radically decreased. We’ve seen it in people learning to step away from a 24/7 work mentality. Right now is a golden opportunity for moviegoing to reinvent itself, too.
The theaters thriving before the shutdown had already figured out they needed to be doing something different to make movie-going special again. Look at the success of the small but growing national chain Alamo Drafthouse, with its plush seating, tasty food and cocktail menus (some engagingly pegged to the films on offer) and star-studded announcements that made sure their viewers understood they were to turn off their phones, be quiet and immerse themselves in the show.
If and when movie theaters come back, they’ll need to operate with a lot more personal space for patrons. That’s going to translate to higher ticket prices. Perhaps moviegoing will become more like the theater: Admission is a bit more expensive, and you treat the experience with a little more respect (oblivious Broadwaygoers aside). Maybe, under new ownership, cinemas would notice people like being able to order an adult drink, and a snack that doesn’t taste like Styrofoam, and that they’re willing to splash out for that. And, possibly, that movie theaters don’t have to be so giant anymore. Malls are becoming a garish relic of the past — maybe ginormous cineplexes should be, too.
We’re learning to use the shutdown as a learning experience for so many aspects of life. Couldn’t we make the movies better while we’re at it?
As we all slowly venture out of our homes, we’re going to want a sense of connection — safe connection! — more than ever. As “Perks of Being a Wallflower” filmmaker and writer Stephen Chbosky has reportedly said: “If you are in a movie theater, you can look two people down and they are laughing while you are laughing, or you can look three people down, and they love that song that you love. It is living proof that you are not alone.”
Our culture is more fraught than ever as we emerge from lockdown. Movies certainly can’t heal everything, but they can help us learn how to be together again. Here’s hoping we can find a way back to one of life’s great communal pleasures.
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