American moviegoing is in absolute crisis. Like so many other venues for live entertainment, movie theaters everywhere closed their doors as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the US, and a great many still remain dark, facing a threat to their existence not seen since the last time a virus ransacked the world a century ago. Independent theaters, which struggle in the best of times to clear the thinnest of operating margins, have no corporate infrastructure or cash reserves to lean on, and even behemoths like AMC have had to furlough hundreds of employees while the film industry at large tries to figure out what the hell to do amid the catastrophic failure of federal leadership that is America’s (non)response to Covid-19.
What the future holds for movie theaters in America is anyone’s guess—and considering that places like South Korea, which have faced the virus head-on, are still at the mercy of micro-outbreaks, even getting Covid under control may not solve the industry’s problems. Whatever the outcome, it will be a good long while until things are back to normal, until everyone can go to the movies together. But maybe just trying to get everything back to normal isn’t the future of moviegoing at all. Maybe it’s time to ask what good normal was doing for anyone in the first place—anyone not named Bob in the C-suite of the Walt Disney Company, anyway.
Normal was a system where a movie not doubling its budget by the first frame meant it missed the mark. Normal barely left room for theatrical slow rolls where a film could steadily open wider across the country and build its audience through word of mouth, allowing for a chance at grassroots success in the face of tentpoles overwhelming the 3,000-theater launch model. (The radical success of Parasite’s run in 2019 proved the rule by being such a massive exception to it.) Normal was an ecosystem where huge marketing onslaughts created conversations around massive movies at the expense of smaller, more artistically adventurous ones, with entertainment outlets forever trying to find the balance between covering big releases that would get clicks and little ones that need all the support they can get. Normal was a world where Booksmart could go from the deserving darling of major film festival acclaim to alleged “flop” because it, as a boutique studio release, didn’t burn down the box office. Normal reinforced the hegemony of the “four quadrant release” being the only thing worth a studio’s time and money, resulting in “niche stories”—read: ones not about straight white people—being consigned to the sea of on-demand options without the fanfare and support they deserve from executives who sign the checks.
In her expansive 1974 New Yorker essay “On The Future of Movies,” Pauline Kael lamented the death of artful cinema in the face of marketing-driven blockbusters, and railed against the declining tastes of young film fans. “The system that’s destroying [artists] is able to destroy them only as long as they believe in it and want to win within it—only as long as they’re psychologically dependent on it,” the legendary critic wrote. “The system works for those who don’t have needs or aspirations that are in conflict with it; but for the others—and they’re the ones who are making movies—the system does not work anymore, and it’s not going to.” Kael was taking down what she perceived as the triumph of businessmen over creators in Hollywood, but her words ring true when considering the plight of theaters today, too.
From Bridge on the River Kwai to Kwaidan, Blade Runner to Blade: Trinity, I love movies, and I love watching movies in theaters. But normal kind of sucked. A system that favored blockbuster hopefuls over independent films flattened the broader conversation about film, which reinforced the need for media outlets to give an inordinate amount of space to quarter-billion-dollar recycled epics (that, reader, I do very much enjoy), which in turn left little room for small-budget fare, which then deprived those movies of the oxygen they need to survive. If hardly anyone talks about indie films, if there’s so little demand, then why bother with supply?
The previously established theatrical pipeline was something of a trap, but the good news is this: from wreckage comes rebirth, and while it’s entirely unclear what the state of the cinema house will be in some hypothetical future when our every public behavior is not determined by the novel coronavirus, I don’t hope it’s the same as when the doors to the multiplexes and arthouses closed this spring. There wasn’t a place for every movie at every theater, and there wasn’t a place for every film lover—not even at the most hip and “inclusive” small chains or independent locations, and those were often luxuries of heavily populated urban centers, anyway. When America goes back to movie theaters one day far away from today, what if the experience is better than we left it?
As the blockbuster machine ground to a halt and started rusting over in the harsh weather of 2020’s unyielding storm, the business of writing about and talking about and watching movies had to change quickly. For some reason, Warner Bros. took its chances with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, resulting in grim domestic theater returns that were entirely predicted. After an extended game of “maybe next season!” Disney finally decided to push all of this year’s major releases not named Mulan to 2021. Universal reacted quickly back in March and decided to delay its next Fast and Furious movie a full year, and there’s some chatter that No Time To Die will skip its planned fall release and shuttle James Bond to next year.
Honestly, it seems crazy to press on as though this crisis will be fixed by November, so just shove them all down the line. Do I want these movies in front of me and as large as possible? Of course. Have I run out of movies to talk about in the meantime? Absolutely not.
There have actually been plenty of movies released this year that had day-and-date debuts on the books from the start. Without super-budget pictures like Wonder Woman 1984 eating up all the conversational real estate, why not pause the speculation of “Will they or won’t they change the date?” and focus on celebrating intimate oddities like Swallow and She Dies Tomorrow; premium streaming gems like Miss Juneteenth, Selah and the Spades, or Andy Samberg’s Palm Springs; and treasures of horror like La Llorona or Blood Quantum?
These movies, some of them exclusively meant for digital premieres on sites like Shudder and Hulu, were never going to compete with something like West Side Story at the box office, and for many smaller markets across the country, having a major movie theater chain is an option that exists only after an extended drive away from home. If you want more esoteric options like She Dies—a slowly unfolding dark-hearted comedy, about the contagion of paranoia, that also includes an extended scene entirely about “dolphin fucking”—perhaps it’s an even longer trip to the nearest indie outlet that runs those down-ticket gems.
The coverage vacuum in recent months has also cleared the way for a boom in retrospective writing. Vulture is doing Friday Night Movie Clubs where they invite readers to tweet along with rewatches of movies like Some Like It Hot and Mad Max: Fury Road, and one of their writers outlined which Ingmar Bergman movie was appropriate for your every quarantine mood. The Ringer recently argued that “The Future of Film Talk Is on Letterboxd,” a review site and sort of movie social media hub that has slowly grown to 2.5 million users and eschews the time pegs of films in favor of building community engagement around whatever users love that day. Did you just find Jennifer’s Body? Great. You don’t have to feel behind the conversation, because the conversation around anything can start anew any time. The Letterboxd landing page may show you what’s recent, but click on its “Popular Reviews This Week” tab and you’ll find, at the time of this writing, the new Netflix film Enola Holmes alongside The Social Network (2010), The Wizard of Oz (1939), and The Exorcist (1973).
As much as it sucks for both audiences and filmmakers alike to not see the work they’ve made and the work they love in its purest form in a dark room with a big screen and strangers all around, the reality of digital distribution has made the marketplace in this moment more egalitarian for more movies than it’s been in ages. With drive-ins being the most viable theatrical model left in America, a tiny creature feature called The Wretched topped the country’s box office in May and June because of nearly a million dollars’ worth of film fans searching it out the very old-fashioned way—probably a bigger headline and bigger exposure than that feature could have hoped for in any normal circumstance.
Thanks to streaming outlets becoming major Hollywood players who spend major money, Netflix is still managing to roll out pricey action-adventure fare into your homes with options like The Old Guard and the aforementioned Enola Holmes, so it’s not all shoestring budget material, but in place of seeing the Black Widow kick ass in her long-awaited titular solo film, why not watch a teenage girl outfox Nazis in the brutal little thriller Becky?
I watched that movie at the Mission Tiki Drive-In in Montclair, California—yes, a luxury of a state that will stay temperate and dry into the fall and winter—and there was such an unexpected layer of joy in watching a little girl annihilate murderous white supremacists underneath the stars. A similar joy attended my viewing of The Vast of Night, one of the year’s best movies and a modern science-fiction classic that takes you through one night in a 1950s-era New Mexico town experiencing an alien visitation. To watch the gorgeous Vast under the stars at a throwback theater that would fit more readily in the time period of the movie itself half convinced me that a close encounter was possible at any moment.
Viewing options didn’t die when the theaters flatlined, but people who rely on multiplexes to tell them what movies exist might have mistaken that for the truth. In their absence, however, there’s an opportunity to promote the discovery of quiet, acclaimed dramas like The Assistant or Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always that concern topics like workplace harassment and abortion, respectively, and were never going to be cleaning up at the foreign box office, but are presently some of the only games in town. The Oscars get dragged for nominating films that too few “regular people” have heard of, but if you’re a regular person who loves movies, it’s our collective responsibility to support these intimate stories in a desperate time for filmmakers who don’t have production guarantees like, “You’re directing Mission Impossible 7 and there’s no way you’re not going back to work.” Think of it as shopping local, where you’d rather give your dollars to the small corner cafe (something like I Carry You With Me, which got a one-night-only general admission virtual screening courtesy of New York Film Festival) instead of Starbucks (Tenet).
Using the absence of theaters wisely should mean conditioning wider audiences to expect a fuller, more well-balanced release ecosystem where blinding returns from global ticket sales aren’t allowed to tell too big a tale about how Important any given movie is. In Future Movie Utopia, maybe everyone is more easily able to fashion themselves a cineaste because they’ve grown to expect and even demand a richer, more diverse movie culture where titles served up at the mega-chains are understood to be one part of a well-rounded film diet instead of filling the whole damn plate with Rock-based proteins. (To be clear: May many blessings be upon The Rock.)
The thing is, the monoculture has been dead for years, and the theatrical domination of heroes harvested from the catalogs of Marvel and DC were one of the last things left animating the corpse of a single unifying pop-culture experience among the masses. (Well, that and Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, who have been pandemic all-stars.) When theaters come back, and I desperately hope they one day can, they should open with more intention around why programming matters. Of course the corporate giants like AMC and Regal will continue to peddle in big, expensive studio-sanctioned selections, but a renaissance of the independent movie house is so far past due.
Beloved locations like New York City’s Nitehawk, San Francisco’s Castro Theater, and Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly in Los Angeles should be models for a new age of theatergoing greatness, and like the New Bev, it’s going to take investments from industry stars and stakeholders to spur on the revolution. The theater business is tough, but if the top talent making movies actually loves them, it’s time for marquee names to step up and sponsor movie houses that can showcase cinema history and assure its future is available to more audiences in more places.
Mighty as his efforts are, Martin Scorsese cannot preserve the whole of film history on his own, and even though really rich people owning public services is a grim business model (lolcry at Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post and The Atlantic brought to you by Laurene Powell Jobs), it’s inescapably true that independent theaters providing outside-the-mainstream programming and repertory screenings are going to need help if they want to survive Covid-19 and the public health paranoia that will live in its wake.
As part of this new brilliant future for the art house cinema, programmers need to look closely at their norms and rituals. I live in Los Angeles, one of the best places to go see movies (when that’s a thing you can do) in the whole world, and yet many in my communities of queer folks and women feel alienated from spaces lorded over by a certain kind of cinephile—so often straight, so often white, so often male—packing screening calendars with movies that too narrowly reflect their demographic’s view of what qualifies as canon. If right now all we have is the ability to fantasize about a better world at the movies, then let’s reconsider the holistic exhibition experience and ensure it’s more inclusive for the dazzling spectrum of film enthusiasts and not just the very masc film dudes who program genre festivals and have a tight grip on midnight madness events across the country.
Access need not and should not be limited to the coasts and a few major cities dotted throughout the American interior, and the theater experience could reignite across the country with a long-needed overhaul to business as usual. It’s just going to take an industry-wide effort to buoy the live experience of its art. Some big players have already got on board with specialized offerings. Sony created a flashy “Drive-In Experience” on its lot, and over the summer, a program called Tribeca Drive-In organized screenings at stadiums in Arlington, Texas, Nickerson Beach, New York, and more. Last year, A24 did a screening series called Public Access where they took over billboards in the real-life locations of some of their most successful films and set up chairs for people to watch The Witch in a field in Ossipee, New Hampshire. There were also bleachers put out in a liquor store parking lot in Van Nuys, California, for The Bling Ring, and more events for Moonlight and The Spectacular Now, in places like Miami, Florida, and Athens, Georgia. This is a repeatable format for any studio that has a mind to take it up. So why not bring the movies right to the people, and in a way that doesn’t even require cars?
In Future Movie Utopia, let us not consider gay cinema or Black cinema as something that gets one special month each year. Let us ensure it is programmed regularly alongside retrospectives of Carpenter and Kubrick as a matter of course. If theater owners want people to come rushing back when it’s safe to return, they’d be well suited to finally court as many film fans as possible, and leave the old ways of re-creating every elitist campus movie club in the past. The big old chains will still have their corporate mandates to fulfill, but the smaller theaters, the independent operators, the places that have to make movies whole events and celebrations in order to survive, can come back better than ever if they let every film fan know their spaces are safe for everyone to enter, and with the help of some high-toned benefactors—where are you, Whiskey In A Tea Cup two-screener courtesy of Reese Witherspoon in her hometown of Nashville? Put up the marquee at America’s Sweetheart repertory in smalltown Georgia, Julia Roberts—theaters have a chance at roaring back, and in locations outside of typical bastions of filmic arts.
There were rumors that Amazon might just up and buy the AMC theater chain, and Netflix has been making acquisitions of historic locations like The Paris in New York, and The Egyptian in LA, but the more actual artists can get in the game to offset the icky vertical integration of streaming giants owning their streaming chains the better off we’ll be. (Yes, this Department of Justice thinks The Paramount Consent Decree that prevented studios from owning theaters is outdated, but, hot take: Maybe Disney shouldn’t own literally everything in Hollywood? Discuss amongst yourselves.)
Back in May, New York magazine ran a feature called “Cine Phobia” that went long on the history of the movie theater in American life, and it highlighted the last time a world-changing virus ripped across the planet, in 1918. “That long ago epidemic changed the movie industry forever,” wrote Bilge Ebiri. “Countless independent theaters across the country, lacking the financial wherewithal to survive the many months of uncertainty, went under. Many were bought out by producer Adolph Zukor, the head of Famous Players-Lasky Corporations, which would eventually become Paramount Pictures. Zukor’s efforts would result in the first vertically integrated movie studio, which could produce, distribute, and exhibit its films in its own theaters—thus effectively creating the American studio system.” Now, I’m not advocating for a return to the studio era, which eventually had to be broken up via lawsuits because the contract system was lucrative for companies but suffocating for talent. But I am saying this country’s movie theaters have been through … a remarkably similar kind of upheaval in the past, and from the rubble the Golden Age of Hollywood eventually rose.
Theaters being laid to waste by an incinerated economy is an awful thing, and congregating in the dark in front of a large screen to laugh and cry and shriek and empathize alongside a packed house of strangers is one of the richest artistic traditions we have. In a heartening twist, though, movies have in some ways felt more social since the shut down. The Netflix Party extension launched in mid-March for people who want to chat with friends while watching something together. The lack of group events and the yearning for big-screen experiences has had a rallying effect that’s enlivened drive-ins, and film festivals have had to adapt by expanding at least some of their programming and events to virtual audiences who might never have been able to fly from around the world to experience something like Fantastic Fest in person.
In a time that can feel so hopeless, with mental and physical health both feeling like they exist on a razor’s edge at all times for millions just trying to cope with being alive in isolation, continuing to come together in creative ways is one of the best survival tactics we have. “There’s a pretty direct correlation between survival in major disasters and your sense of community,” says geophysicist and actual disaster movie consultant Mika McKinnon. “If you really want to prepare for a disaster, yes, you should have a kit. You should have a plan. Get your first aid training, all these things we know we should do but we’re lazy and broke and cheap and don’t have space to put them. Or, you can throw a lot of parties and invite your neighbors, and you up your odds of survival by like 10 percent.” So, why not mask up, invest in a projector if you can, and invite fewer than 10 neighbors over to watch a movie against your garage or a wall of your house while you all stay six feet apart? Just BYO chair and snacks for sanitary purposes.
Creating community when we’re all supposed to be responsibly sitting at home means getting creative, but even for people who are used to lives of routine gatherings and activities, socially experiencing movies doesn’t have to stop. It just means being more inventive about it. At the start of the pandemic, I was staying in better touch than I had in years with friends spread out across Texas and New York thanks to a weekly Sunday Scaries viewing routine. Los Angeles-based writer and director Sam Wineman has been hosting a weekly movie night in his home for 16 years, and while the in-person experience has had to be shelved, he’s stayed programming double features every weekend, streaming them via software like Discord so attendees can revel in the absurdity of trash classics together via the app’s chat feature.
A silver lining is that now, friends in places like Ohio can be a part of it, too. “I was worried it wouldn’t work, but what I didn’t expect was for it to grow. The online format lent itself to fun edits, pre-show playlists, and a chat that was less intimidating for our quieter voices to jump in on,” says Wineman. “When we hit the ‘head home and quarantine’ phase, it felt like we were still laughing together in the same city. We reconnected with former Movie Nighters. We invited new out-of-state ones. We even had an online Secret Santa for Christmas in July that spanned from coast to coast. The format may have changed but the way I enjoy movies with my community has not.”
The movie theater cannot die. We cannot let it, because it’s not just a way people kill two hours in air conditioning on a hot day. It’s the concert experience of cinema. It’s an exercise in shared empathy. It’s the chance to be immersed in a world of fantasy, to laugh and scream with strangers, to learn more about what it is to be human—all without the distractions of the outside world. We cannot let it be gone forever, but when the curtains are able to go up again, perhaps we can build a new Golden Age for the cinema houses that bring us together by building one together. Normal wasn’t working, but the good news is we don’t need to bring it back in the future. And if we can get more enriched and creatively engineered communal experiences, more movies from all budget tiers into the hands of more people, and yeah, a few really rich Hollywood people to subsidize the revolution here and there, then I can’t wait to responsibly get back to the movies.