April Wright interviews film historian Leonard Maltin inside the restored United Artists Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.

Movies

A Doc About Historic Movie Houses Suddenly Seems More Relevant Than Ever

With no theaters open to show it, Going Attractions will screen online this week as part of the Thin Line Fest.

Every documentarian wants their film to be timely, but in April Wright’s case, that might not be such a good thing.

Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace will screen online this week as part of the Denton-based Thin Line Fest. Simply put, there are no theaters open to show a movie about movie theaters.

With cinemas temporarily shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual documentary festival — which also typically contains music and photography components — pivoted to a virtual format for its five-day showcase, which begins Wednesday.

The festival schedule is still intact, except that the screenings and Q&A sessions will take place entirely online. All shows (including a handful with local ties) are free with registration at the festival website.

Dallas VideoFest is trying the same approach with its annual AltFiction lineup of shorts and features on April 3-5, which is also free. While such repurposing is welcome amid a sea of postponements and cancellations, both festivals plan to be back in theaters next year.

As for Wright’s film, it was relevant even before the current crisis, during which the ways in which films are consumed might be irrevocably changing before our very eyes.

“Up until now, movies never closed. Movies were open after 9-11. Movies are open on Christmas Day. Movies were open throughout the wars. They were always there as an escape for people,” Wright said by phone from Los Angeles. “The industry has certainly been rocked in a way that it never has before.”

Going Attractions focuses on the history of ornate movie palaces that became popular around the country in the first half of the 20th century before evolving filmgoer habits and tastes rendered many of them obsolete. Some have been preserved or repurposed, while many others have deteriorated or been demolished.

“I wanted to understand what happened — why these places didn’t stay open and what caused them to fall into such bad disrepair,” Wright said. In many cases, they’ve been impacted “by things that have nothing to do with movies, such as technology, or social or cultural shifts over time.”

Wright grew up in a movie family in Chicago, and developed a special affinity for drive-ins and classic movie houses. Her new film is a follow-up to a similar project about endangered drive-ins from 2013.

“Audiences have been very emotionally attaching to the film and connecting with it,” she said. “There have been a lot of unsuccessful preservation efforts. A lot of the ones that are left and showing films struggle most of the time. Theaters are part of our collaborative culture.”

Like many moviegoers left with an unprecedented void, Wright can only speculate on what the future of the cinematic experience will be, and hope for the best not just for historic movie palaces, but suburban multiplexes, too.

“A lot of these places that are historic are constantly trying to find that mix of programming, but all of that programming obviously involves people being able to gather in groups. I’m not sure when we can return to that normal, but they’re all going to take a blow,” Wright said. “When movie theaters open again, I hope people remember and support them.”

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