These are strange times for the movie business. Most film productions shut down earlier this year, and, as we hunker down and binge watch our way through our streaming services, Hollywood is bracing for a looming content drought.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has the studios and the movie theaters at each other’s throats. In March, Universal announced it would pull Trolls World Tour from theaters and release it straight to streaming services. That prompted mega theater chain AMC to ban all future Universal films from its theaters. Industry watchers knew the theater chain was flexing clout it no longer possessed, and sure enough, AMC recanted, striking a deal with the Hollywood studio that will allow movies to start streaming a mere 17-days after premiering in theaters.
The nuts and bolts of film distribution, the value of big screen exhibition, the impact of streaming on the form and style of cinematic art: these are all developments that movie nerds, like myself, love to debate. But then, this week a press release dropped in my inbox that drove home some of the ways in which the way we watch movies tells us where we are as a society.
The press release announced that Dallas-based Studio Movie Grill will open its latest dine-in theater this weekend in Fort Worth. That news woke me from a drowsy state of obliviousness to all the regular life activities that, apparently, are still taking place outside of my quarantine bubble.
“Wait a second,” I thought, “Are people actually going to the movies right now?”
Well, apparently, they are. A quick search for showtimes reveals that even though the release of Christopher Nolan’s much-hyped Tenet has been delayed three times, you can see Nolan’s Inception at the Angelika Film Center today at 12 p.m. and 3:45 p.m. There are more than a dozen showings of The New Mutants at AMC Northpark today. And after a five-month hiatus, the Alamo Drafthouse has reopened many of its locations with a mask mandate.
And while I understand the eagerness for movie theaters to get back up and running, there is no way in hell I’m stepping into a movie theater anytime soon. Let’s see: a crowded room pumped with recirculated air and no way to check in the dark for mask compliance? For me, that ticks just about every COVID-19 fear box there is.
But if theaters are showing films, then people are likely going to them — enough people, in fact, that Studio Movie Grill decided not to postpone the opening of its new theater at the Shops of Chisholm Trail, its first in Fort Worth, even as Tarrant County logs nine new COVID-19 deaths. That news is about more than the movies. It underscores a sociological aspect of this pandemic that we don’t talk about much, an indication of how divided our experiences of the world have actually become.
Think about it. Now that we live in a semi-reopened world, our current experiences of that world are largely determined by the way we individually view and understand the threat and risk of the COVID-19 virus. Our perception of a disease determines what kind of world we live in.
It didn’t used to be that way, of course. In some very broad ways, we used to all live in the same shared reality. It was a world populated with movie theaters, restaurants, and bars. If you wanted to go to the movie, you could. If you wanted to get out of the house on the weekend grab some enchiladas, go for it. If you wanted to cozy up at a bar and order two-fingers of bourbon to take the edge off a Friday afternoon, well, why not? You deserve it. But now, some of us live in a world in which some of those places no longer exist, at least temporarily. They are no longer part of our lived experience of the world. No movies, no restaurants. And yet, they may be a part of yours. How strange.
It goes beyond the places we seek entertainment. I know a woman who is planning a wedding for October. Nine bridesmaids. Big rented hall. The venue claims they will be following CDC guidelines, but what does that mean? Masks at the cocktail hour? Six feet between each of the nine bridesmaids as they line up? No, it means that some people now live in a world in which the experience of that wedding can exist. Some people do not.
In a society in which ideological and informational divides continue to define broader ruptures in our culture and politics, the pandemic has now created a situation in which differences in opinion and perspective lead people to experience very different, tangible worlds. We’ve always chosen to participate in different activities, associate with different groups, and join different organizations, but this goes beyond the fact that. This goes to the movie theater, that most common and quintessential of shared American social experiences. You may live in a world where movie theaters still exist. I do not. I find that strange and fascinating.
Anyway, I don’t want to get bogged down in which perspective is right and which is wrong, what our responsibilities are towards limiting the impact of the pandemic, the science, the news, the political messaging, and all of that. It’s Friday, after all. Can we ever just take a break from all the damn noise?
No, what I am curious about is who out there is actually going to movies. I miss the movies. I almost envy those whose risk-tolerance is calibrated in such a way that they are allowing themselves to go to the movies. Our tolerance for movies during the pandemic strikes me as a different sort of gauge than our comfort level with returning to the office or sending our kids back to school. We don’t need the movies like we need a job or education. It’s a different sort of risk-reward equation.
But then, don’t we all, at least on some level, need the movies? Especially at a moment so chaotic and upsetting as our own, wouldn’t it be nice to go into a cool room, watch the lights go down, and let ourselves enter a different world if only for a few hours?
I’d really like that right now, but I’m waiting. Are you? Who among you would feel comfortable catching a flick this weekend? Let us know.