It’s no secret that COVID-19 has hit the film industry hard by forcing studios to halt production on major features and postpone the release of new ones. The impact it’s had on movie theaters has been especially devastating. It feels like a century since we’ve been able to stand in line to pay for the privilege of sitting in a dark room filled with strangers and week-old popcorn bits stuck to every surface except the inside of a garbage can, and in light of the health restrictions imposed on public spaces, it’s hard to believe we ever wanted to begin with. But much has changed since those ancient times.
With many theaters closing or imposing new health regulations and limiting audience capacity, streaming platforms like HBO Max and Disney+ have become the alternative. Being a safer, more convenient movie experience, these services are poised to overtake theaters as the new normal. Nobody wants to risk death to see Space Jam: A New Legacy (dir. Malcolm Lee, 2021), but thanks to the magic of streaming, you no longer have to. For a paltry $9.99 a month, you can be the first to see Bugs Bunny and Alex DeLarge’s legendary meeting from the comfort of your couch, as Stanley Kubrick no doubt would have wanted.
Whether you’re pro-streaming or pro-theater, we can all agree that the shakeup to a century-old institution, the movie theater, has been a difficult adjustment. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be an unpleasant one. I’m of the mind that making the jump to streaming could very well be a blessing in disguise for us as movie watchers.
- Movie Theaters Aren’t Very Fun
Last December, Denis Villeneuve, cinematic warlock and creator of modern classics such as Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Maelström (2000), went public with his displeasure over Warner Bros.’ decision to simultaneously release his adaptation of Dune (2021) in theaters and on HBO Max. In what was essentially two pages of aggrieved ranting, he decried the studio for what he saw as a betrayal of trust that devalued his efforts and the movie’s production crew. He also stressed the importance of movie theaters and how they elevate film from simply being a soulless business: “It’s an art form that brings people together, celebrating humanity, enhancing our empathy for one another — it’s one of the very last artistic, in-person collective experiences we share as human beings.”
Villeneuve’s take is a romanticized version of what really happens in theaters, which experience has taught me is less that of enlightening empathy and more like being around restless people who won’t stop kicking my seat, the perpetual smell of chemically-processed popcorn butter, and parents who think it’s totally sound to bring babies to movies that have at least one eardrum-rupturing explosion every ten minutes. A movie theater is the last place I would visit to “celebrate humanity.” If anything, it’s the place I visit when I want to reinforce my cynicism in my fellow man and feel secure in my opinion that concession stand nachos and hotdogs are two of the worst inventions our species has ever concocted.
People exalt the virtues of theatergoing by playing up the process of preparing for it almost as if they’re attending a sporting event where tickets have to be preordered and seats need to be booked ahead of time to ensure the best viewing experience. When you buy a movie ticket, you’re partially paying for the right to share your space with a roomful of strangers. This can be something wonderful or something horrible, and much like dipping your hand into a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and pulling out a handful of mummified shrimp instead of sweet sugary goodness, you don’t know which one you’ll get until you’re already in your seat waiting for the show to begin.
When Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele, 2017) was first released, it wasn’t available on Video On Demand (VOD) services. As Jordan Peele explained: “If you don’t see [Get Out] with the theater energy, you’ll miss out on the full intended experience.” When it comes to genres like horror and comedy — of which Get Out is both — theaters can enhance the movie experience. When you’re in a room with a group of laughing or screaming people, the excitement is intoxicating and their emotional response becomes yours. Seeing a movie with strangers can turn a mediocre movie into a vibrant one –– if you get a good crowd, that is.
When I saw Doctor Sleep (dir. Mike Flanagan, 2019), it was a Friday night in a packed theater. Everything seemed to be going well until roughly fifteen minutes in. For some unknown reason, that continues to haunt me to this day, people began to laugh. It started out harmless — a few scattered giggles here and there — but worsened as time went on. By the time the movie had reached the sixty-minute mark, the entire theater was roaring with laughter over a graphically violent, somber horror movie about the nature of addiction and trauma. Doctor Sleep isn’t a comedy by any definition, so you would have never guessed that based on the audience’s response to it. This was the same weekend Zombieland: Double Tap (dir. Ruben Fleischer, 2019) — an actual horror-comedy — was released. Yet a movie about psychic vampires brutally murdering children was apparently the more appealing choice for a rip-roaring good time.
Maybe laughter was a way to lighten the tension of an admittedly heavy movie. Or maybe people thought they actually were seeing Zombieland and were just waiting for the zombies to show up. Whatever the case, the atmosphere inside the theater rubbed me the wrong way and made it difficult to engage with the movie, especially during more emotional scenes. Not everyone will be considerate –– a risk that comes with the public.
The only way you can curate your movie experience is by hosting the movie yourself. When you stream a movie, you’re in complete control of the venue. You can invite whoever you want. You can eat whatever you want instead of having to settle for overpriced candy and popcorn (unless you like those, it’s your house, not mine). Best of all, you’re not letting theaters get away with bad business practices.
- Theater Chains Are Adopting Increasingly Aggressive Marketing Tactics
When I go to the movies, I only want to worry about three things: getting to the theater on time, having enough money for snacks, and finding a good seat. What isn’t on that list is getting punched repeatedly in the spine. But that’s exactly what the experience of going to see a 4DX screening is akin to — instead of being physically punched by a fist, you’re letting the seat do it to you instead.
Essentially, 4DX is a 3D movie supplemented with extra gimmicks in the form of “environmental effects” like smoke, wind and scents. Most of these features are built into the seat, which is a sophisticated piece of machinery that will vibrate, shake and jump along with the action onscreen. Some screenings even use sprinkler systems; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (dir. Zack Snyder, 2016) was one such movie that made use of this technology. Given that most of the movie takes place in the rain, it’s exactly as fun as it sounds. The price of admission for this one-of-a-kind adventure is $28 — a pittance if you love getting drenched with water while your seat tries to brutalize you.
The film industry has been and always will be rapidly evolving. As movies continue to blur the line between reality and fiction, the way we experience them will also change. For example, 3D was an unique new form of technology that seemed to have limitless potential. It has since long outstayed its welcome, but theaters and studios refuse to do away with it entirely, leaving us with a fad that refuses to die even though very few movies since Avatar (dir. James Cameron, 2009) have attempted to do anything new with it. While still not widely available, 4DX looks to follow in 3D’s footsteps, with theaters advertising it as a next-level immersive experience.
Most people would agree that sitting in a seat that lurches every time a character breathes doesn’t qualify as an “immersive” experience. But theater chains are convinced that the market for the people that do think so is an untapped goldmine, not a niche demographic who likely won’t pay to reexperience what it’s like to be pummeled by Batman. As theaters hike up costs to earn back lost money, the price consumers must pay comes in the form of inflated ticket and snack fees.
In the end, capitalism will do as capitalism wants. With the pandemic having only just reached a point where lockdowns are being lifted, you can expect theaters to continue pushing these aggressive tactics as they try to recoup the losses they took over the last year and a half.
- Streaming Is Just More Practical
Going back to the social aspect of movie theaters, one of the biggest hurdles that comes with seeing a movie is location. In the case of limited releases, like foreign films and midnight movies, chain theaters will pass on them because they believe that they aren’t commercially profitable. Instead, smaller theaters swoop in and purchase the rights, making them the only place you can see these films at.
If you happen to live close to these venues, great! If you don’t, you have to put in a little legwork. If you’re lucky, the theater will be a short distance away, hopefully less than an hour. If you’re not, you’ll have to factor in extra money for transportation costs, which can quickly turn an affordable outing into an expensive one.
Safety is another concern. The midnight and cult movie experience is one built upon a foundation of thrill-seeking. These films are screened late at night (hence “midnight movie”) and at independently-run theaters. The crumbling skeletons of movie houses dating back to the early 20th century and the tiny arthouse theater tucked away on the fringes of downtown are historically and culturally where these films have thrived. It’s an image event organizers, studios, and members of their respective fandoms have capitalized off of; it’s unfathomable to show these movies elsewhere.
The trouble is these settings are not always inclusive for all, especially for women, people of color, and members of the LBGTQ+ community. Going out after midnight is by nature risky. But add a venue in an unfamiliar area, or a part of the city with a high crime rate and the question of safety truly becomes a concern. This can be a barrier for people who wish to take part in the cult/midnight movie experience, especially when their fandoms are largely centered around the sort of audience involvement you only get from the theater, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (dir. Jim Sharman, 1975).
Movies like Rocky Horror and their fandoms benefit from the sense of community small theater settings provide. Watching a movie like it alone in a home theater just isn’t the same. Missing out on that traditional social experience is a problem with no easy answer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that looking for alternatives is a pointless endeavor. With a group of friends to help, the cinema atmosphere can be replicated and even improved upon with comfortable accommodations. Streaming at home may not be as glamorous as going out, but it may prove to be more realistic and even more fun than driving out to the middle of nowhere only to discover that tickets are sold out. Or worse: You’ve come all this way only to discover that it’s a 4DX screening.