Intro — In Defense of the Theatrical Experience
I know it’s popular to rag on what it’s like to go to the movies nowadays: everything’s overpriced (the tickets, the food, and drinks) and the audience can be unbearable with their cell phones and constant chattering throughout the movie. I do completely understand why that might be enough to turn people off from ever going to the movies again. Especially as we’re still weathering through a pandemic, even with more and more people getting vaccinated, the idea of spending two hours in an enclosed space with a bunch of strangers can still be quite risky.
Truth be told, other than the fear of missing out on that one movie everyone’s going to be talking about, there’s not much incentive for movie-lovers to go to physical theaters, especially with streaming becoming more alluring and viable. Consider how Warner Bros. and Disney are now covering their bases by leaning on their respective streaming services. The point is, an argument can be made that seeing a movie in theaters might not be that essential anymore.
But here’s the thing — I love seeing movies in a movie theater. I always have. And I still do.
There’s nothing wrong with watching a Star Wars or Marvel movie on your TV, laptop, tablet, or phone; there’s no wrong way to enjoy a movie, period. And yet there’s something to be said about seeing a movie on a big screen, three- to-eight-stories tall. I like to think that scale has the ability to sweep us away, further immersing us into the worlds and stories unfolding before our eyes. We feel like we’re about to take part in something larger than life, which is what movies inherently are.
There’s also the communal aspect — the idea that people from different walks of life can gather under one roof, if only for a little while, to forget their troubles and immerse themselves in another reality. It can be infectious when audiences laugh and cheer together during a funny or awesome moment, or during a suspenseful scene when you can feel dozens of strangers bracing for what’s to come. In fact last year a Twitter thread of audience reactions to ‘Avengers: Endgame’ went viral as we reminisced about the experience of enjoying a movie together. As annoying as they can be, there is something about the theatrical experience of sharing a big cinematic moment (or moments) with a group of people.
And the news stories that followed in the wake of LA County’s reopening of movie theaters—as one of the country’s key theatrical markets—just last week shows that demand for the movie theater experience is still there and still fairly strong. I myself was clamoring for the chance to return. And that’s what I did last weekend. Here’s my experience.
Back at the Theater: What’s Changed
It was 5 p.m. on Saturday the 20th. I arrived at the AMC Promenade 16 in Woodland Hills, just a few blocks away from Westfield Topanga & The Village. I parked close to the theater, made easy by the fact that there weren’t that many people. When I got to the door I couldn’t open it; I thought it was locked. Then I realized that the doors were now designated to be either strictly entrances or exits. This was going to take some getting used to.
I was there to catch the 5:30 showing of ‘News of the World’; it would be the first movie I’d watch back in theaters after a year away (for the record, the last movie I watched in theaters before the shutdowns was ‘Bloodshot’). The lobby was quiet with foot traffic at a minimum: understandable when attendance is capped at 25% capacity. I noticed that some of the standees and posters in the theater were holdovers from the Before Times: movies that have either since been delayed (‘A Quiet Place Part II’, ‘The King’s Man’) or are already on DVD (‘Scoob!’, ‘The War with Grandpa’), and in one case skipping theaters altogether (‘The Woman in the Window’, which is going to Netflix). I also noticed hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipe stations dotted throughout the lobby.
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Entry was ticketless, with the ticket taker standing behind a plexiglass barrier as she scanned my phone. I continued on, up the escalator. At the concession stand, stickers on the floor let people know to maintain social distancing as they lined up. I got my large popcorn and was directed to the separate beverage station to have an attendant fill my drink cup; I soon learned that free refills wouldn’t be available for the time being, which was disappointing but understandable. With everything settled, I made my way to the auditorium. It’s movie time.
The Movie-Watching Experience, As of Right Now
It was one of the smaller auditoriums, with a capacity capped at 19 people. And as far as I could tell, the number of people that day came close to that amount. The way seating worked was that when you buy your tickets, the seats surrounding yours are automatically blocked to ensure social distancing. And for the most part, it did accomplish that; I felt there was enough distance between me and other people, although I did try to avoid sitting directly in front of or behind people. The trailers began and I noticed that there were less than usual, with only ten minutes of them compared to the usual twenty; once again understandable since there aren’t that many new movies certain to come to theaters just yet.
The film finally began. As for my thoughts on it, they pretty much echo that of our review. It’s a solid and very well-made Western with great filmmaking and performances all around. I have to say, seeing it in a theater I found it easier to focus on the film and give it my full attention. That’s not to say I couldn’t do that watching it at home, and there is the perk of being able to pause or rewind at will, but let’s be honest: it’s easier to get distracted. Maybe it’s a loud roommate or family member, or you notice your phone, video game console, or computer within your line of sight and your mind starts to wander over what else you could be doing.
But when I’m at the theater with all distractions temporarily cast aside, all I have is my seat, my snacks and drinks, and the movie I paid good money for. I feel like I can better focus on it. I did faintly hear those sitting behind me reacting to some parts of the film. I know I should be annoyed and yet, I can’t help but feel a little pleased to see and hear that the movie got an emotional response out of people. It’s weird the things you miss once you’ve been deprived of them long enough.
Here’s the rub. Before the film began properly, we did get an interstitial from AMC reminding guests of important COVID-19 protocols, to keep masks on at all times except when eating or drinking. And I did just that, only lowering my mask fleetingly to scarf some popcorn down or take a sip from my drink. Otherwise, we’re pretty much on the honor system since there’s not really any supervision once we’re in the auditorium.
And that meant I noticed a small number of people pulling their masks down for the entire film, only slipping them back on when it’s time to leave. It’s irresponsible in my opinion and seeing that only made me nervous. I wish I was brave enough to call them out on it, but I was too scared to make a scene. I’d like to think that it’s not like this in every screening from here on out, but the fact of the matter is there’s always going to be careless people here and there. I’ll just have to stay aware and keep my guard up.
Is It Worth It? Your Mileage May Vary – Movie Theaters
It was nice to be back at the movies. This whole time spent in lockdown had me missing things (some of them unlikely) that are part of my moviegoing experience. I missed wandering the lobbies and browsing the posters and standees; I missed people-watching, just seeing other cinephiles like me mill about in the theater; I even missed sitting through trailers I’ve already watched many times; I especially missed digging into that movie theater popcorn. Enough has changed that I got the feeling moviegoing might be different for a while, but some things stayed the same. And while I can still very much enjoy streaming a movie at home, the brick-and-mortar experience will always hold a special place in my heart. I can see myself resuming my weekly outings again.
I know there are others who feel the same way as I do but are still very reluctant about going back to theaters. And that’s okay — you’re not obligated to go if you don’t feel safe just yet. No movie is worth risking your health, and if you’re patient it’ll be available to rent or buy before long. If you do choose to return to the movies like I have, just be aware of the risks still present.
Remember — stay safe, be careful what you touch, remember to socially distance yourself, and wash your hands. Above all else, get vaccinated once it’s available to you. And wear a mask.
By Mario Yuwono
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