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Crowds, concentration, and a new perspective: The case for movie theaters

The pandemic taught us what theaters are for.

Daily Life in New York City Around The One-year Anniversary of The COVID-19 Shut Down
The Times Square Regal Cinema was closed for almost a full year.
Noam Galai/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Will we go back to movie theaters when the pandemic is over?

For a year, American movie theaters have largely remained closed. The number of new releases was reduced as studios bumped their biggest titles into the future. Drive-in theaters made a comeback, to be sure, but only recently have regular movie theaters started to reopen across the country, at reduced capacity for now. If you saw a movie in the last 14 months, there’s a good chance it was on your TV. Or your tablet. Or your phone.

Some industry observers seem convinced we’ve become so accustomed to streaming, we’ll never go back to theaters. We’ll “end up watching movies on Netflix at home because we have gotten used to that,” or theaters that survive the pandemic “may find that online-streaming apps have stolen away audiences for good.”

The pandemic undeniably changed certain aspects of our at-home movie viewing habits — some for the better, and in ways that are poised to last a while. Major studios and theater chains have agreed to permanently reduce the amount of time between when a movie hits theaters and when it reaches streaming platforms. Some distributors may also decide to stick to day-and-date releases, where a movie arrives in theaters and on streaming at the same time.

It makes sense to give audiences options. Some people don’t live near a theater that might play a smaller release. Others can’t make it to the theater, or they prefer not to for various reasons — they have a disability, they need to care for someone, or they’re just reluctant to visit a venue that doesn’t value the experience of their patrons. (Everyone’s gone to a theater with sticky floors, poorly projected films, and an audience that talks and texts. It sucks.)

Italy Eases Covid-19 Lockdown Restrictions As Economic Recovery Plan Reveal
Movie theaters are beginning to reopen — and maybe we’re remembering why we go in the first place.
Stefano Guidi/Getty Images

But the impending death of the movie theater has been attributed to streaming services almost as long as streaming services have existed, despite evidence that people who stream more also go to cinemas more.

And so, I’ve been skeptical of the speculation that people won’t go to theaters post-pandemic because we’ve gotten used to watching movies at home. It’s not like no one was streaming movies at home before Covid-19 began to spread. And while there’s plenty of data showing that subscriptions to streaming services shot up during the pandemic, it’s vital to remember that watching a movie or TV show on streaming over the last year wasn’t exclusively a replacement for going to the movie theater. It was a replacement for everything.

After such a long spell of watching movies only in our living rooms, I suspect we won’t just be excited to go right away.

I think many of us have learned why we go to movie theaters in the first place.

What do we really want out of a movie theater?

When the first movie theaters opened in 1905, the reason to visit was simple: to watch a movie. You didn’t have a television or a VHS player at home; they weren’t invented yet. If you wanted to see a film, you had to go to the place where the film was playing.

Eventually, technological advances brought new options for at-home entertainment. And as they changed and evolved, so too did the reasons to venture out. Perhaps you went to the theater to see a spectacle, or to watch a movie that wouldn’t be easy to access elsewhere anytime soon. If you loved Titanic when it came out in 1997 and wanted to see it again before its arrival on home video — on not one but two VHS tapes, nine months after its theatrical premiere — you had to go to the theater.

Even as DVDs and then Blu-rays became commonplace, and streaming services arrived in the late aughts, the reasons for going to a movie theater remained about the same. It was something to do. Maybe you’d go just to hang out with your friends. Going to the movies was fun and relatively cheap. A movie theater was a good place to go on a date (or with someone you wanted to date). There were blockbuster releases and goofy comedies and horror movies to see. For a whole lot of people, movie theaters were knit into our lives.

What about in 2021? Why go to movie theaters in a post-pandemic world? I talked to folks from all kinds of backgrounds across the US and the UK to try to answer this question, and I got a bunch of different responses. But what most people told me, after a year of watching movies only at home, is that they go to theaters for three reasons. One, they want to be around other people. Two, they value the loss of control that’s inherent to movie theaters, the commitment to being in a space and paying attention to the experience the filmmaker has created. And three, they long to have their perspective shifted on the outside world in a way that’s tough to replicate at home.

There’s nothing like seeing a movie with a crowd

People sitting at a social distance from each other watch a...
Moviegoers in a socially distanced theater in Indonesia.
Andry Denisah/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The danger of being around other people is the whole reason movie theaters were shut down in the first place. But seeing a film as part of an audience is part of what makes the moviegoing experience so fun.

“I miss the communal story experience with strangers, even if they’re annoying,” Kristy, who lives in Michigan, told me. “My movie group at church has been watching at home and meeting over Zoom for the last year, and we can’t wait to inhabit the same theater and then go for dinner together again afterwards to dissect and discuss.”

“I also miss the knowing feeling a crowd has when there’s a hero shot,” Phil noted. He’s from Massachusetts. “Like when Captain America says ‘Avengers … assemble!’ in Endgame.” Angeline, who lives in the UK, agreed: “I love my local independent cinema for their colloquial communications and making me feel like I’m their friend. In their screens, an audience feels like it’s laughing, crying, or longing together as a community. It’s magic.”

“I realized how much I missed the public moviegoing experience to the extent of just hearing the audience’s reaction to what is on screen,” Dave said. He lives in the Seattle area. “Whether it be laughter, a shocked gasp, or tears at a dramatic moment, there is a wonderful community experience that happens when going to the movies. That is what I most look forward to in returning after vaccination.”

For many of us, the communal experience isn’t just about being with our friends; it’s being around other people, whoever they are, and getting to experience something together.

When I talked to filmmaker David Dobkin, the director of Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga as well as comedies such as Wedding Crashers, last summer, he noted how vital the theatrical experience is to enjoying a great comedy. “You’re in the theater, and people are laughing so hard and the whole place is rocking, and you just forget that that’s the beauty of the communal experience,” Dobkin said. “In some ways, comedy is more legit in a theater than most other experiences.”

When you buy a movie ticket, you’ve relinquished control to the movie

Several people I talked to said they like and even welcome the loss of control they commit to when they buy a ticket and go to a theater. At home on your couch, it’s easy to turn off a movie midway through, or to plan to watch an Oscar nominee but end up just rewatching episodes of The Office. It’s simple to pick up your phone and scroll, or to get up and do some chores while half-watching what’s on screen. Interruption is everywhere, even if you have the best of intentions. After all, unless you own a truly enormous TV, the movie is smaller than you, and it’s surrounded by the accoutrements of your “real” life.

But everything’s different when you’ve carved out an evening, paid $12, traveled to the theater, and plopped down in a seat. Now there are stakes. Sure, you could still walk out or decide to do something else, but it’s much less likely.

“When my wife and I go to the movies, I know we’re embarking on it together — full attention, no distractions. It’s an experience,” said Ethan, who lives in Texas. “What I most miss about the theatrical experience is the expectation that we are all gathered to pay attention,” echoed New Englander Lynn.

Moviegoers on March 15, 2021, the day theaters reopened in Burbank, California.
Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images

“I think the aspect I miss the most is the way it feels like an event,” said Josh, who’s from the Seattle area. “It’s so different than just flopping onto your couch and opening up a streaming service. Driving out after dark, walking in under the lights, buying or picking up your tickets and snacks. Meeting friends or family in the lobby. Finding your seat and watching the trailers. Sharing first impressions on the walk out to the car. It’s a whole thing.”

Nick, from New Jersey, said he loves “the almost claustrophobic feel of horror that theaters provide.” And once you’re in the theater, you’re on the hook. You can’t stop the film to go to bed and pick it up again tomorrow.

“I think watching a movie in a theater is a heightened experience because the viewer has less control — the only option is to be fully swept along with what’s happening, unless you just leave,” Allison, who lives in Texas, told me. “There’s no pausing to process what just happened or release any kind of emotional buildup. In theaters you just have to ride experiences out if you don’t want to miss anything.”

It’s not just movies that shift our perspective on the world — it’s movie theaters

There’s one more reason people told me they miss the movie theater: Being in a place that’s designated for the purpose of watching a movie makes them feel differently about what they’re watching and about the world they encounter on the way out.

Kaci used to go to the movies near her home in South Carolina frequently but has watched fewer since the pandemic began and home viewing became the only option. “Since I live in an apartment in a city with a roommate, I can’t just immerse myself in watching something at home,” she said. “There are traffic noises and neighbors, and I don’t want to turn it up loud enough to disturb other people. So I think the biggest thing I miss is that space dedicated entirely to Watching A Movie.”

“I’ve realized that one of the things I most value about watching movies in a theater is sitting in the auditorium while the end credits roll,” said Amy, who lives in northern Virginia. “I don’t necessarily watch the credits, but I like having time to decompress and prepare to go back into the ‘real world.’ At home, I tend to just start looking at my phone when the movie ends.”

“Going to see a film is like taking a tiny holiday,” Angeline noted.

Moviegoers wearing 3-d glasses watch Avatar in a dark movie theater.
A whole lot of people on a tiny holiday in a pre-Covid world.
Visual China Group via Getty Images

My friend Nick, who lives in Virginia, cited to me the work of filmmaker and theorist Nathaniel Dorsky as the way he’s been thinking about the importance of the theater. In his book Devotional Cinema, Dorsky recalls going to the movies to see Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy. “After the film, Dorsky remembers entering an elevator with a group of strangers who had just seen the film too, but he notices that in some mysterious way they are less estranged,” Nick explained. “Everyone is looking at one another, accessible and vulnerable, tears in their eyes. Not really saying anything, they were still strangers, but they had also left the screening with a kind of newfound intimacy in how they saw each other. Dorsky thinks, then, that in this case the film wasn’t simply about its subject; it was its subject.”

That’s what Nick says he misses about going to the movies. At the theater, he’s enveloped in someone else’s perspective — thanks to a big screen and surround sound — in a way that’s hard to experience at home. And that has an effect on what happens afterward. “When I leave a theater after inhabiting a beautiful point of view, I notice myself changed, however temporarily,” he said. “In a certain sense, I have been dislodged from myself and from the way I saw the world before I entered the theater. In a certain sense, everything has become defamiliarized from my own typical patterns of seeing. ... Exiting the dark theater after a matinee and seeing everything in the daylight as if for the first time.”

I know just what he means. I’ve missed theaters tremendously — especially since my job means I used to sit in one three or four or five days a week. I don’t think going to the theater is the only way to see a movie (and in some cases, a bad movie becomes worse when there’s no easy escape). But it’s a vital one, and I hope this pandemic year has made a difference in our collective understanding of why.

In the words of Joni Mitchell, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Maybe a year without theaters reminds us of what we had, and what we can still have again.

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