Another potential casualty of the coronavirus: our movie theaters

Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

Alex Holmes

In the age of the novel coronavirus, which has wreaked havoc upon the economy, forced companies to lay off or furlough millions of employees, and killed hundreds of thousands, the closure of the world’s movie theaters might not seem too important. And for the vast majority of people across the globe, it’s not. 

The average American only sees five to six movies on the big screen per year, so the only thing most people are missing is the release of the latest James Bond flick. However, for cinephiles like myself, the shuttering of theaters borders on blasphemy. As one of the most important pillars of culture, it’s imperative that more people go to the theater once this passes than did before to make up for the money theaters lost while closed.

Though theaters on the whole will hopefully survive, the movies won’t return the way they used to. The Covid-19 pandemic, while not responsible in and of itself for the drastic changes we are bound to see, will speed up several frustrating developments in the industry. Over the past decade, the major studios have been making fewer and fewer original, adult-oriented, lower-budgeted movies in favor of going big or going home. Blockbusters, in their superhero and action form, have become the norm at the multiplex. The five to six movies most Americans see are usually these. Covid-19 may just push out the rest of the movies entirely. With so many more artistic-minded films already being released exclusively on streaming platforms, and the high quality of the Golden Age of Television making staying at home a more enticing option, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that all we’ll get to see in theaters are Marvel, DC, and Star Wars movies. 

That’s a pretty bleak scenario for an arthouse cinema fan and movie theater lover like myself. I enjoy watching epic blockbusters like “Avengers: Endgame” and I always eagerly anticipate the next Star Wars release. Those movies serve a purpose and are usually quite adept at fulfilling it: to entertain. The issue arises when those are the only movies available to be seen on the big screen. I fully dismiss the notion that some movies are only fit for the small screen. ALL movies are better in a dark theater, surrounded by strangers, amongst friends (or by yourself). Sure, I’m perfectly happy to skip the movies I genuinely have zero interest in and wait for them to hit Netflix, but for movies that I’m even a little bit excited about, a big-screen watch is a must. It’s why I saw movies like “Roma” and “The Irishman” in theaters when I could have waited a mere two weeks for them to drop on Netflix. And it’s one of the reasons we all have to help smaller, independent and arthouse theaters once they reopen.

With that said, there are still steps that movie theaters can take in the meantime to help themselves. Transitioning to a Video on Demand (VOD) model where movies that would have been released in theaters are instead released online via the theater’s website is one such step. Many smaller theaters, such as the independent Avalon in DC have done this, and it’s an important step because it gives theaters a source or revenue while they can’t sell physical tickets. When this is all over, perhaps it’s also time for a reduction in ticket prices. This could mean just lowering the average price of a ticket (many now go for as much as $12 to $14). In a more likely scenario, it could mean that more theaters adopt a movie pass system à la AMC Stubs A-List, a subscription-type service where members pay $22 per month and can see up to three movies per week for free. It’s a lot cheaper than paying for each movie individually and could encourage more people to go to the theater.

Besides the increased picture and audio quality that comes with the theater, the experience of watching a movie in a room full of people can not be beaten. When you watch a horror movie, the audience’s collective gasps make the night fun and frightening instead of just the latter. With a comedy, it’s scientifically proven that people tend to laugh more when they hear others laughing, so there’s no better way to enjoy even the dumbest of Adam Sandler’s comedies. With a drama or arthouse movie, the collective experience of being wowed by what you just saw on the screen is pure joy. I watched “Parasite” three times in theaters last year, and with each trip, the audience was completely into it, laughing at the dark humor, being shocked by the twists and entranced by the plight of the main characters. Legendary auteur Alfred Hitchcock once said, “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.” Half the fun is lost without the audience, and there won’t be one if movie theaters go out of business. 

The movie theater can also serve as an escape from the stresses, doldrums, or annoyances of daily life. It’s a fully immersive experience where you can’t go to the bathroom every 10 minutes, pause the movie every five, or look at your phone every three. Whether or not the movie is good, you’re stuck with it, and that can be incredibly fun. Movies we might have turned off halfway through because they were so atrocious can become escapist fun if you start laughing instead of cringing. Some of my favorite theatergoing experiences are ones where the movie I watched was so bad… it was good. And I love those movies almost as much as I love the most obscure foreign cinema. 

When I tell people that I love movies, many ask what my favorite genre is. The answer is that I don’t really have one. I want to see all kinds of movies, as long as they are good or entertaining (the great ones are both), and I would hate to see movie theaters become like an arcade with only one video game. Yeah, I like Marvel, but too much of anything will leave a bad taste in your mouth after a while.

One of the first articles I wrote for The Beacon was about how Disney was monopolizing the movie industry and in it, I went on a rant against them and urged people to see smaller, non-superhero movies in theaters. Now, almost three years later, I’m still advocating for the same thing, but the issue has become direr. COVID-19 has backed the movie industry into a difficult corner, and the only way for us to show the studios that we want original, artistic movies is by voting with our wallets. When theaters open back up again (praying that they do), those of us that can afford to do so can’t be timid about going out to the movies. Hopefully, you’ll want to, after being cooped up for so many months, but it’s imperative that people go to more movies than they did before to stave off the decline of independent theaters. The coronavirus has already taken millions of jobs, hundreds of thousands of lives, and our way of life. Let’s not let it take away our movie theaters, too. •