A Plea for the Cinema

Let’s talk about the Coronavirus. I don’t have to tell any of you just how crazy everything has become in the past couple of weeks, as its been all anyone has seemed to want to talk about. The virus, and the resulting preventative measures being taken to curb its spread, has had a wide-reaching and unprecedented shockwave affect, touching nearly every facet of life. The political, medical, and economic impact of this pandemic is immeasurable, and we likely won’t know for certain just how much things have been compromised by this whole ordeal until long after it’s over. But since I am absolutely not qualified to discuss any of this, and nor would I really care to at any length, I instead want to talk about what it’s doing to the entertainment industry. Particularly, how it’s impacting film releases.

The obvious, immediate effect that everyone’s at least casually aware of, of course, is simply a matter of postponement. As in, because everything is in shut-down at the moment, nothing can actually be screened, resulting in sort of a strange purgatory devoid of new releases. It also means that, because nothing is being filmed right now, either, that we’re likely going to ultimately have a similar void in the near future, where nothing substantial is released while studios are all playing catch-up. There’s dozens of news stories daily now in every trade publication announcing another major production has either had its release date pushed back, or has had its production halted indefinitely.

And sure, that’s annoying. There are quite a few films I had planned on seeing this year that have been pushed back significantly (poor New Mutants is never going to see the light of day at this point). But given time, things will normalize again, and we’ll be on the same scheduled onslaught of yearly releases that we’ve since grown accustomed to. This is a problem that will absolutely solve itself. (However, the impact this is having on industry workers, who are suddenly finding themselves with no source of income for the next couple of months, is an issue for another time). What we should be actually, genuinely concerned about has nothing to do with the production side of things. Rather, the more immediate concern is a venue issue. I’m talking, of course, about the theaters themselves.

Because of the nationwide efforts to quarantine the virus and self-isolate to limit exposure, theaters have been shut down on a scale never-before seen since the industry’s inception. Every single cinema in the United States, with the exception of a few scattered drive-ins, in closed indefinitely, until stay-at-home orders have been lifted. Without a steady source of revenue, many cinemas, even large chains, have begun to feel pressure to close their doors for good. And since the theater industry has already been treading water for some time now, this could spell doom for many of the giants that so many of us frequent. So far, AMC Theaters are rumored to be going under, and I suspect they won’t be the only ones.

Obviously, this is a huge problem, but one largely in the short-term. Some theater chains will likely go under because of this, but the larger chains will ultimately survive, conglomerating those who can’t quite make it. (Not that this in itself isn’t cause for concern, especially in regards to independent theaters, but again, that’s another discussion altogether). Theaters will be back after the pandemic, and in full force. The question is, for how long? There’s a troubling new trend on the horizon, one that, were it to pick up any real steam, could be the beginning of the end of the theater-going experience as we know it: Digital releases.

I should clarify what I mean by this: I’m not talking about Netflix. Most streaming services that we all use now are more akin to Blockbusters than movie theaters. They allow us to view films that have already since left theaters, and have been available for physical purchase for some time. I also don’t mean digital purchases of already-released films either, in lieu of purchasing the DVD or Blu-Ray through retailers like Vudu or iTunes. What I’m specifically referring to here is the relatively new phenomenon of releasing a new film, meant for theatrical release, online through a digital platform, so that it can be rented and viewed in the home, rather than going to a theater. This is something that has been proposed and toyed with for a while now, but hasn’t actually seen any real action until recently.

As of right now, this type of streaming is, essentially, in a sort of trial stage. Most major studios have deduced, likely accurately, that there’s still far more money to be made with a wide theatrical release, and would rather just wait until such a time when theaters are back in business. As such, it’s mainly been small-budget films from studios like Blumhouse, where there’s not as much risk, who’ve taken advantage of this platform. But larger films have begun to appear as well. Universal and Dreamworks released Trolls: World Tour last week to apparently record-breaking numbers (likely caused by a similarly record-breaking number of parents suddenly finding themselves having to entertain bored children 24/7), so clearly there’s some audience for this.

The amount of profit this way is still a small fraction of what a theatrical release would net, but the numbers are steadily climbing. Logically, the longer theaters are closed, the more people are going to look to this as a viable alternative. The real question is, though, if this trend is going to continue after theaters have opened. Could this end up being a genuine threat to the theater industry? Given how lucrative streaming has become over the past few years, I can certainly see that as a possibility. It could very well be that the home becomes the preferred venue of seeing a newly released film. And, frankly, it’s hard not to see the appeal.

Financially speaking, an at-home viewing experience is a no-brainer. It’s undeniably expensive nowadays to see a movie. The tickets themselves are pricier now than they’ve ever been, and when you factor in the cost of snacks and other concessions, you’re looking at quite a hefty pricetag for a night at the movies, especially if you’re paying for someone else as well. God help you if you have kids. For many families, including my own, the theater-going experience has become so expensive that it’s now just a once-or-twice-a-year treat, rather than the weekly venture it once was for so many in the decades prior. For people in this situation, it’s so much cheaper to just pay the $20 for the online rental, and have as many people as you want watch it for the same flat fee. Plus, all the snacks are free.

Then there’s the convenience factor as well. For most people, it takes planning to go see a movie. It’s not something that most can just decide to do on a whim. Work schedules can get in the way, family obligations, too, and it can sometimes be two or three weeks into a film’s run before you can finally spare a moment to actually make it to a theater. Especially if the nearest theater to you is a significant distance away. And that’s just if you’re going by yourself. Coordinating a group is an even larger hurdle, trying to match up everyone’s schedules to find a time that’s unanimously open. Taking the travel and planning stages entirely out of the equation, and simply picking a time when your at home is logistically so much easier. At-home streaming can be done on a work or school night, which can’t be said for a trip to the theater for many. Plus, who can resist not having to actually put on pants? And being able to pause while you go to the bathroom?

And, I Imagine for some, it’s also a matter of having a guaranteed, controlled environment in which to view a film in peace. Sometimes, you just get a bad roll of the dice when it comes to your fellow audience members. We all have our own movie theater horror stories: The idiot next to you who won’t get off their phone (or at least turn down their screen brightness to a level slightly below that of a star going supernova), the elderly couple two rows up who won’t stop loudly asking questions about things that have already been clearly explained, or the woman sitting in the front row who inexplicably brought her screaming infant to this screening of A Quiet Place. Whether it’s opening night or a Tuesday afternoon matinee, you never really know what you’re going to get when you sit down in the screening room, especially if you live in a more populated area. I once saw a man working on his thesis during a screening of Kong: Skull Island. It’s like the wild west in there sometimes.

All of this to say that yes, I can certainly see the allure of this type of viewing experience. Cinemas have their downsides. I understand the place in the market for at-home screening. I can’t say for certain that my principles are strong enough to never use this kind of service, especially with smaller films that I can’t find showing near me, or for something that I simply don’t have time to see in a theater setting. It certainly has it’s uses, and I don’t want to completely dismiss it out of hand. But to me, in abandoning traditional cinemas, we lose something essential about the medium in the process.

For one thing, film is meant to be viewed on the biggest screen possible. Sure, certain things won’t suffer for lack of a projector and a sound system (I doubt anyone could justify the need to see a rom-com in IMAX). But it’s an incomplete experience without them. So much is lost in a home-viewing environment. No matter how fancy or expensive your set-up is, it can’t compare to the big-screen. The colors, the quality of the picture, the boom of the surround-sound as it moves all around you, it’s downright magical in the right moment. Something like 1917, for instance, would lose absolutely all of it’s impact if it didn’t make you feel in your bones like you were on a WWI battlefield with the main characters. The frantic, A theater can even make a mediocre film into an amazing one. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is probably my least favorite of all his films, yet seeing it in IMAX 3D, with Dolby Surround Sound, is in my top-three movie experiences of all time. It was nothing short of incredible. Visually, it was stunningly beautiful. The sound through those speakers, both diegetic and otherwise, was mesmerizing. I was entranced the entire time, despite having huge issues with the plot of the film itself. There’s just something transcendent about seeing a film in that particular space that nothing else comes close to.

Film should be a spectacle, an event, something that you not only enjoy on an intellectual level, but marvel at on a technical level as well. The technology in a theater, even a low-end, two-screen grindhouse, is where the film you want to see what made to be viewed in. There’s a reason that they’re shot with cameras that cost more than the GDPs of most third world countries, and sound equipment that could hear a gnat cough from 100 yards away: It was meant to be seen as largely and loudly as possible. You can’t match screen resolution like that unless you sell your kidney for a 4K TV the size of your living room wall, and you can’t get soul-shaking  sound the same way without absolutely enraging your downstairs neighbors. And that’s if you’re even watching on a TV. If you’re watching on your phone or tablet… Well, I’ll let David Lynch explain it better than I ever could:

But technical problems aside, what you’re really losing by watching a new-release in your own home is the experience of seeing a film. Because, ultimately, that’s the point of seeing a movie. Enjoying the actual film itself is important, of course, but the overall experience of how you see it is just as crucial. There’s nothing like seeing a film with an audience. No at-home viewing set-up can compare, even if you do have a group of people watching with you. Watching movies is just better with a crowd, end of story. Horror movies are scarier, comedies are funnier, and action movies are far more thrilling when you’re reacting alongside an auditorium full of other, equally engaged people. As I’ve said before, one of my fondest memories is seeing Infinity War opening night in a packed house. The energy in that room was indescribable. There was cheering, laughing, crying, and shrieking, with everyone in the crowd joining in. Sure, some people may find that annoying, even hate it, but for me, it made me love the film even more than I would have even by its own merits.

Imagine only being able to listen to music at home. Yes, your favorite song would likely still be your favorite song, the quality wouldn’t change. But no at-home listening experience can possibly compare to a live show. No matter what sort of sound system you have, no matter how expensive your equipment may be, it still wouldn’t come close to the experience of seeing your favorite band in a crowd of people, singing along with everyone. It’s the same with movies. Sure they can be enjoyed at home, but they’re so much more fulfilling in large venues with crowds. Presentation is everything.

And again, I know some people don’t like theaters. Most of the time, it’s because of bad experiences. People loudly talking, using their cellphones, and being all-around distracting can certainly ruin a film, no argument there. But it’s not like an at-home environment is without it’s pitfalls as well. The home is an endless source of distractions and interruptions: Talkative roommates, needy kids, pets to attend to, the list goes on. And that’s just the distractions with their own agency. Most of the time, the biggest distractor is yourself. The urge to check your phone, check on your laundry, pop into the kitchen for a snack, or work on homework. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down to watch a movie, only to find myself mindlessly scrolling through my phone ten minutes into it. Not because I was bored, mind you, but because it was there. In a theater, all of these distractions magically disappear for two hours (except for your phone, but the angry, judgmental stares from those around you should keep that in check).

I fear, above all else, that if we shift to a home-viewing model for films, then we lose what makes them unique. Television has lost nearly all of its mystique and novelty at this point, and we take it incredibly for granted, despite the fact that there’s still amazing content being produced. Likewise, I ‘m concerned that the same thing could happen to film, if we simply relegate it to something else we watch at home, on our laptops and living room televisions. At that point, we treat movies as being just as mundane as TV, something that we mindlessly have on in the background while we go about our business. They lose all of their impact, all of their magic, if we let them.

I’m not suggesting that at-home screening should be abandoned entirely. No, that bell has already been rung, and I suspect it’s likely here to stay now. And again, it certainly has its place. There’s many people who simply can’t go to the cinema, for a multitude of reasons. For sheer accessibility, its a handy alternative to have around. But what I desperately hope, when all of this lock-down business has concluded, is that people still make an effort to go out. See things as they were meant to be seen. Go alone, go in groups, see a packed Saturday Night screening of a blockbuster, or catch a lonely Wednesday morning Indie. Regardless of how or why you do it, just go. Keep the industry alive, preserve the art form in the way that it’s intended. And if you can, support a local theater! Independent cinemas are at the biggest risk of dying out, and they’re often the absolute coolest. By all means, go to Regal or Alamo (especially if you have a rewards card, popcorn isn’t cheap), but every once in a while, if you can, hit up a smaller establishment. Just don’t become complacent, content to stay at home and consume everything from the comfort of your own couch. You’d be doing a massive disservice to not only filmmakers and cinema workers, but yourself as well. Don’t rob yourself of the experience.

And seriously, turn down the brightness on your phone.

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