The pandemic has stolen big-ticket items, like, you know, people’s lives. It has also been a quiet little sneakthief, a pickpocket pilfering those tiny things that kept us sane without our even realizing it.
Aristotle famously said something that sounded like “We are what we repeatedly do.” Until late March of 2020, you could argue that I was a human movie ticket stub or lukewarm, salty, buttered popcorn. Over the past year, that dead Greek philosopher dude might say that I’ve become the remote control that you can’t find when the TV volume changes without warning. Metaphors are fun, right? The point is that, unexpectedly and unwelcomed, an unheralded pillar of my identity blipped out of existence once going to see a movie was no longer a safe option.
Any communal space shared by like-minded folks is a secular kind of holy. The ritual and routine of simple acts like going to a movie theater serve a far grander purpose than many realize. I know the absence certainly left a far bigger void in my sense of self than I thought it could or would. COVID has introduced new, ugly kinds of loneliness that can be as obviously grotesque as death in a quarantined ICU room or as ordinary as forgetting what the laughter of strangers sounds like.
From the literal second the nurse’s thumb left the plunged syringe that contained my second vaccine dose, I began a countdown to my theatrical return. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still nervous. Hygiene theater, the practice of showily and obsessively cleaning surfaces that has no actual bearing on infection rates, may finally be coming to an end. But the hygiene in theaters is another issue entirely.
Entering a largely ventless box with people you do not know — some of whom will inevitably cough and many of whom will absolutely be maskless while wolfing down popped corn — will never be on the CDC’s “happy good ideas” list. But we need movie theaters, and movie theaters need us (not just me). I mean, even the friggin’ ArcLight is closing.
The two things I get asked the most during this plague year are “When is it safe to go see a movie again?” and “What’s going to happen to theaters now?” I am neither a doctor-scientist nor a studio or theater exec. But here are my best answers, along with what I’ve learned over my theater-less year.
Olly Olly Oxygen Free?
Watching local theaters grapple with the “Sophie’s choice” of closing their doors or powering through a pandemic has been super-hella upsetting. Differences in business structures allowed Film Streams to pivot and offer streaming options but forced most local cineplexes to keep limping along like “normal.”
I will forever and for always find it unconscionable that a bigger, targeted bailout of this and other related entertainment industries never happened. During whatever crisis is on deck, all theaters should change their legal name to “Literally Any Billionaire’s Bank Account” and watch the government aid flow.
“Ryan’s choice,” not reviewing movies that were theatrical release only, was nowhere near as hard a call. It still sucked though. It felt like turning my back on friends who needed me. I do not doubt our local movieplexes all followed every guideline to the absolute letter. It’s just that there is no real safe way to approach certain things, like a gunpowder enema or putting strangers in a windowless room during an airborne disease outbreak. We’ve got vaccines now though, baby! Those sweet, sweet chemically induced antibodies are a-flowin! So it’s gotta be safe now. It’s safe now, right? We can all go back to the theater now? Please?
Like the message in a surprising number of lullabies, I can only tell you that nothing in this world is ever really safe. I promise you, someone somewhere has died in a marshmallow-related tragedy. Everything we do is just different degrees of dangerous. When it comes to watching movies in theaters, I can only tell you this: Now that our region has opened up COVID vaccinations to anyone who wants one, I feel it is no longer morally irresponsible to review theatrical films. That’s what you’ve been waiting to hear, right?! You’ve finally got the green(ish) light?
I’m pretty sure that “movie critic” is the exact opposite of “medical doctor.” That being said, it is my personal belief that being vaccinated and still wearing a mask will make the experience of moviegoing no more dangerous for me than driving literally anywhere in Omaha. All of this is to say, my answer when asked if it’s “safe” to go see films in the theater can only be “I’ve decided to start going again.”
I mean, for the love of Pete, there’s an entire brand new theater in town with seats that haven’t had my butt in them. The ACX Cinema 12+ opened in the middle of germ-a-palooza, and I am beyond excited to inhale that “new theater” smell.
It is an intensely personal choice as to what makes you feel comfortable, like how some people swear by boxer briefs, but others find them to be oppressive to their business. I can only say that my reluctant theatrical fast is about to be broken. Join me if you wish! But, you know, keep your distance and get vaccinated first.
Don’t Believe Theaters Are Dead, Even if TMZ Reports It
The fact that Godzilla vs Kong was a kaiju-sized box office hit, despite being simultaneously released on streaming, is a reminder of the “Keith Richards” rule: You don’t shovel dirt on something that looks like a corpse until you know it’s actually dead. I have not and will not ever believe that theaters are collectively doomed. Like everyone but rabid anti-vaxxers, they just need our love and support.
If you’re going to circle one date on your calendar, it should probably be your partner’s birthday. If you circle a second, that should probably be your mom’s birthday. But if you circle three, I would suggest adding May 28. That’s the day that both Cruella and A Quiet Place Part II hit. The former is also going to be on Disney+ Premium, which is somehow not called Disney+ Plus; however, the latter is only in theaters, y’all.
The retreat of John Krasinski’s first sequel from March of last year marked the moment many theater owners likely first choked down some bile, realizing what was ahead. With its (maybe) triumphant return to cinemas, many are looking to it as a bellwether of what’s to come for the box office. Did you know that “bellwether” is a term used to describe a castrated ram with a bell on its neck that leads a flock of sheep? May you never think of John Krasinski without remembering that fact again!
What is shocking to me, beyond that fun fact, is that studios refused to use the time that theaters were shuttered to figure out a longer-term solution for dwindling audience attendance. What were all those executives doing? Cocaine. They were probably doing cocaine. Personally, I would have tried to renegotiate opening weekend revenue sharing and abandon an outdated release strategy that often leaves huge gaps on the calendar in too many months. But then again, I do not use cocaine.
Answering a question like “What will happen to theaters now?” is like answering “Where do babies come from?” There’s a simple, family-friendly answer, and there’s also a much stickier, grosser set of explanations that can be provided. The former is “They will struggle for a bit but be fine, so long as there’s no big COVID surge and shutdown again.” The latter is “We need to stop talking abstractly about ‘making going to the movies an event again’ and start rationally assessing the size, scope and revenue brought in by likely theater attendees.”
If you care about the long-term health of this industry, when you feel safe enough, go see a movie. That’s really it. What I’ve learned most over these 400+ days outside of a movie theater is that I care. I care so much. I care an almost inappropriate amount.
People love to make jokes about theatrical inconveniences, from the noisy audience members to the overpriced concessions. After a year without them, they not only don’t seem that bad, they seem like a small cost for any shared human experience. Doing things with other people in a capitalist society means both enduring inherent annoyances and coughing up some cash. I can confirm now that is absolutely worth it.
I’m ready to hear someone awkwardly laugh at a scary scene.
I’m ready for surround sound so loud it jiggles all my jiggly bits.
I’m ready to whisper “Oh, I want to see that one” after a trailer.
I’m ready for a B+ film to jump to an A- based on how the crowd felt.
I’m ready to go back to the movies again.