The Show Will (Not) Go On (Maybe)

The future of movie theaters is genuinely in doubt


I miss seeing movies in the theater so damn much. That won’t change anytime soon.

I am gonna be the downer-est Debbie to ever Debbie Downer for the next few hundred words. Please remember that I can name more movies that I legitimately love than actual human beings that I feel the same way about. An irresponsible amount of my best memories are tied to theaters. I want to be wrong about so much of this. This is not what I want to have happen. But we do have to talk about what I think is going to happen with movie theaters in the near future long term.

What’s Happening Now

Mister Rogers told us to “look for the helpers” in a crisis. That’s nice, right? I would also suggest we look towards the published scientific evidence. A study out of Wuhan found that poor ventilation and close proximity in a closed environment caused a major spread of coronavirus. Although the facts are somewhat less clear, the “super spreader” event that happened with a choir also backs up the idea that being in a room with a bunch of people for a long period of time is “hella bad.” The CDC did not use the term “hella bad,” but maybe more people would wear masks if they did.

Let’s set aside the fact that contagion mechanisms have somehow become a partisan issue. Nobody—and I mean nobody—thinks that gathering a bunch of us mouth-breathing yahoos in a sealed area for several hours is a good plan. It is, as the CDC also does not say, “stinking thinking” to attempt such a thing.

The length of time from March 6 until you read this is the longest I have ever gone without setting foot in a theater since I was a child. Movie theaters are nothing but sealed areas where mouth breathers sit for several hours.

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Would masks help? Sure. But movie theaters make most of their money on concessions, which you cannot eat with a mask on, the last time I checked. Would cutting down on occupancy help? Sure. But that Wuhan study I mentioned featured a situation that would be better than the most ideal of circumstances for any theater.

Theaters are closed until there’s a vaccine. Nobody is saying this, but it is the truth. I hate it. But it is what has to happen so that the places I love most in this world do not become tiny boxes of death. One asymptomatic infected person in a movie theater can cause literally every other person in that theater to become ill. Again, I’m not a scientist, I just read them.

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What Happens Next?

In the short term, unlike Leonardo DiCaprio in ice cold water, local theaters are doing everything they reasonably can to stay afloat.

Film Streams and Alamo Drafthouse have both launched streaming portals where you can rent films, with some of the proceeds going to the theaters. If anything tells you how dire the situation is, it’s that a phrase like “some of the proceeds” is being used to describe the best-case scenario. Aksarben Cinema and Marcus Theaters have done—and will hopefully keep doing—periodic sales of their theater popcorn. I believe the majority of the caloric intake in my lifetime is owed to butter and salt. Without them, I will turn to dust faster than a Thanos snap.

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Can I get a “honk honk,” because at least cars are safe! Twin Creek Cinema has started offering drive-in, parking lot movies. Douglas County will get another drive-in theater this summer; the Quasar Drive-In Theater will be located at Highway 36 and 300th Street, near US Highway 275 between Fremont and Valley. Falconwood Park is starting up a drive-in movie series again too. Does this scratch the same itch as actually sharing a film with an audience in a theater? Nah. But it helps.

It helps keep the struggling theaters in some small way. It helps simulate partaking in a communal artistic experience. It helps get us safely out of the house, at least. I never thought being in a car in Omaha would represent safety, but here we are.

What Happens Later?

If you didn’t see the verbal slapfight between AMC Theaters and Universal Studios, welcome to the even more hellish part of this breakdown because now I have to talk about Trolls World Tour. Allegedly, the decision to release the animated sequel on home video was profitable. This prompted some execs to say “Hey, maybe we don’t need theaters!” This prompted theaters to say “Oh yeah, maybe we don’t need movies!”

This is profoundly stupid on both sides.

Weirdly, movies need to have movie theaters in order to make the most money, while movie theaters need to have movies in order to avoid becoming just “theaters,” which would confuse drama majors. And you do not want to further confuse a drama major.

This hyperbolic ticklefest between Universal and AMC is silly, but also incredibly important for local chains. If you don’t know, the major Hollywood studios take just an insane cut of the first weekend profits for every blockbuster. A thimble of soda costs elven billion dollars because that’s the only way some theaters can make it. The only way for movie venues to stay profitable is mass turnout, which is not exactly pandemic friendly.

That has to change. If it doesn’t, vaccine or not, theaters are dead. It is a not unreal possibility that gives me the piss jitters, which is also not a CDC-approved diagnosis. In an ideal world, this is an opportunity for renegotiation and repurposing, for studios and theaters to realize their symbiosis. So, basically, all we need is for billionaire-owned companies to agree to take less money. Yeah, I see how that reads now. We’re screwed.

You cannot say I didn’t warn you we were going to get to this point. It was literally the first thing I said. You’ve been Debbie Downed!

I have some hope. I do. A little, but it’s there.

I hope that movie theaters get bailed out by the government. That is just a phrase I never thought I’d say, but again, here we are. If they can be buoyed long enough, we will all return once it is safe. I would bet everything that the moment we are truly not at risk, those theaters are gonna be so full, I will immediately go back to being angry at disrespectful audience members. I am downright excited to judge people who take their shoes off in recliner seats again!

Locally, I hope we don’t lose a single theater. Not one. I don’t know if that’s reasonable. I just know that if there’s a way for us to prevent that, by God, I will help fight against it.

That’s maybe all we can do right now, you and I, we movie lovers. We can rent movies through Film Streams and Alamo. We can buy popcorn from Aksarben and Marcus. We can hit up drive-ins. But we can also voice our support. This isn’t silly or superfluous. Movies are the dominant art form in America. I don’t want to lose the way we share them together. I hope you don’t either.

Share this article. Share any ways we can help support our local theaters. Share your desire to bring theaters back, once it is safe, likely a year or more from now. I don’t like waiting either. But I will. I cannot wait to watch a movie with y’all again.

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