This essay comes to Awards Daily from reader Jeff LeBlanc
Movie theaters are facing extinction, and I’m devastated by the prospect.
It’s not news to anyone to say that cinemas have been deeply impacted by the pandemic like so many other industries and individuals. I feel a responsibility to acknowledge that many people are suffering, and this article is in no way meant to take attention away from the severity of the pandemic. I’ll add that I am not encouraging individuals to go to the movie theaters if they feel unsafe. This piece simply aims to express the sadness that many movie lovers feel about the current state of the industry. Also, I want to highlight why I love the cinema in the first place and express sincere hope that the movie going experience exists in the post-Covid world.
Going to the movie theaters during the pandemic is a bittersweet situation. I live in Massachusetts and in close proximity to many movie theaters. Small arthouse cinemas, large chains, and even a few midsize privately own auditorium-style theaters. For the summer months, most of these theaters were closed or turned themselves into makeshift drive-ins. The drive-ins were fun. There was a positive energy still thriving at this time. As the vehicles drove onto the lot, one theater owner of a midsize facility thanked each patron for supporting the drive-in and acknowledged how thankful he was for our attendance. The New England salty beach scent was in the air, concessions were sold outside, and classic movies were shown on the big screen under the stars. It felt very 50’s and everyone had a great time. Yet, as summer turned to autumn, the drive-ins started to close. Many of these theaters stayed close, the optimism faded quickly. As the Covid cases rose the large-scale movies left their intended dates one after another. Each moved release date was another nail in the proverbial coffin.
Still some large-scale theaters near me remained open. Tenet was a highlight of late summer. In fact, Tenet was the first time I went back to an indoor cinema. It’s important to note that I’m what you may call an avid movie goer. Pre-Covid, I would attend a movie screening at least once a week. It was amazing to be back, but it was also very strange. Attendance was low to say the least. I’d never attended the opening night of a blockbuster with fewer than 10 individuals in the theater. Yet, at this point this seemed okay since guidelines were strict and capacity was limited. It seemed that this might be the new normal for a little while. It felt different but appropriate.
As the months went along, I attended classic screenings, and a few select new movies that were still playing. I even rented an auditorium for Halloween and had some friends attend a screening of Beetlejuice. We wore masks and distanced from each other. Many of us hadn’t seen one another since the start of the pandemic. In my own way, I was doing whatever I could to keep the hope alive and support the industry that meant the world to me. Each time agreeing to the listed set of requirements to enter the auditorium, no contact with anyone with Covid, hadn’t traveled, no symptoms, mandatory mask, etc. Each visit got a little sadder. I would look around these beautiful cinemas and see no one. The excitement was fading with each showing. The absence of crowds was depressing, and it was getting worse and worse.
For many the thrill of movie going has always been linked to the communal experience. We laughed together, cried together and sometimes complained at how bad the movie was…together. This certainly is part of why I love going to the movies. Certain genres really flourish in front of a live audience, especially comedies. Watching a comedy alone never feels quite right to me. I enjoy hearing the laughter of others and joining in. I feel the same about horror. If the audience is right, there’s nothing better than all being scared together. However, my love for the cinema is more rooted in the escape opportunity it allows the audience. For the running time of the film, I have the chance to sit in the dark and be taken away to another time, another place, sometimes another dimension! It’s pure magic. It never mattered what was happening in my life, I could always find a few hours of peace at the movie theater.
I’ll never forget when my grandmother died. The grief and sadness were overwhelming. In the days following her death. I remember craving some time away from everyone and everything. Where did I go? I slipped off to the movies to view Blade Runner 2049. I escaped my grief and my reality to spend a few hours with replicants in a somewhat distant modern new world. It was just what I needed at that moment. This is why I love going to the movies as much as I do. It’s not just seeing a movie for me. It’s always been the best form of escape. Who among us couldn’t use a little escape now and then? Many movie lovers have their own stories of how films and cinemas have helped them through a tragedy or a trying time. The movie experience is universal for us film lovers. Some say it’s just a movie, but we know that’s not true. Those hours in the dark mean more to us than anyone can ever know. To put it plainly, the experience of viewing a film in the cinema cannot be replicated at home. In my humble opinion, it will never substitute the theater. It just can’t compare.
This past weekend I attended a screening of my favorite film Pulp Fiction. I was thrilled to get the chance to see this film on the big screen, an opportunity that had alluded me up until this point. As I drove into the parking lot, I noticed that there weren’t any cars parked. For a moment, I thought perhaps the cinema was closed, but it wasn’t. I threw on my mask and made my way to the ticket taker. He scanned my ticket from behind a plexiglass window, and I walked the empty halls to the auditorium that was playing the Tarantino classic. The theater was empty, just me and my good friend sat alone. Before the feature started, I bolted out of the theater to use the restroom. On my way I overheard the ticket taker talking on the phone to whom I assume was his boss. He quietly said that he had never seen it this bad. The entire theater was practically empty, and he was very concerned about what was going to happen if things didn’t pick up. He also asked if he should still put the posters up for the coming attractions since it wasn’t known for sure if these features would be released. He had never seen it this deserted. He described it as both concerning and eerie.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
As I headed back to watch the film, I couldn’t help but take a glance around. The arcade blocked off with caution tape and barriers. The bar and concession stand empty. There wasn’t even a cashier working. What was the point I suppose? It was at that very moment that it dawned on me that this could be it. It was no longer an exaggeration to think that these theaters may not make it. The entire exhibition industry may not make it. I could rent out as many theaters as I wanted to, but it wasn’t going to be enough. No new product combined with rising cases meant next to no business. My heart sank for the owners of the theaters, for the workers, for the families that rely on this industry and of course for the movie lovers.
I felt guilty for thinking, where would I go? What will happen to those of us who look to the cinema as a form of escape and as a means to some clarity? It seems trivial to be concerned with such things at this time, but I won’t deny that I have thought about it and I continue to. It may not be important in the grand scheme of things, but it matters to me and to countless other movie lovers. If this experience fades away, what then? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers. I wish I did. As a business professor, I realize that, if the numbers don’t add up, eventually something has to give. These companies can’t stay operating at this level for much longer. The reports that have been released are not promising, things look bleak as of now.
Whatever the future holds, I will never give up on the movie going experience. It’s meant far too much to me and to countless others. This is not a eulogy. This is a rallying call. One that I hope in some way can reignite the passion many people have for the movie going experience. When it’s safe to do so, I urge us all to grab the popcorn, dim the lights, sit back and relax, and watch a film together.