Why Movie Theatres Matter
Theatres are slowly reopening, but is it too late to save them?
Movie theatres here in British Columbia were some of the first to reopen, thanks to a strong and effective pandemic response. Since then, there have been no reported cases of infection originating at local theatres, and in my humble opinion, theatres have been among the safest, most organized and cleanest of all businesses to reopen. Unfortunately, one of the reasons they have been so safe is that there are almost no people.
When movie theatres closed down on March 16th in British Columbia, I was in attendance at the very last indoor screening of a movie in Greater Vancouver. That's because I heard that theatres were closing earlier that same evening, and I realized I wanted to see one last movie before my favourite pastime was taken from me for an unknown period of time. So I texted a friend who felt similarly, and headed to the last show that had yet to start, Vin Diesel's Bloodshot.
Likewise, Kurtis and I were back the very first day at Landmark Cinemas New Westminster for a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, my favourite film of all time. When Landmark and Cineplex reopened select theatres in July, they brought back some of the greatest classic blockbusters of all time for short runs at 1990's prices. For someone like me, it was heaven. Not only were the crowds light and the prices low, it was a chance to see films like Tim Burton's Batman (1989) on the big screen for the very first time. It was also a chance to revisit some of my all time favourites.
This all begs the question, why would someone like me, financially effected by the lockdown, spend money on a potentially risky theatrical experience, when I could watch these movies at home for free? The answer is threefold.
First, there is a lot of nostalgia in going to the movies. I get a burst of endorphins watching those previews and sipping on my giant soda. 'Member Jurassic Park? 'Member lining up for Star Wars? Oh yeah, those Member Berries are a powerful drug.
Second, I wanted to support local movie theatres. I've been back to see multiple movies at Cineplex and Landmark, but I've also been back to the Rio Theatre in East Vancouver. I want theatre owners to know that there is an audience to keep showing movies.
Third and most importantly, I believe movies are meant to be experienced on a large screen, in the dark, with deafening surround sound and deep base. Preferably with an audience who is just as engaged as you are. This point is crucial, because it goes to the heart of why we need movie theatres, and why I'm so concerned about losing them after the dust settles from the current crisis.
There was a growing cynicism to movie theatres long before Covid-19 invaded our shores. Overpriced tickets, increasingly shallow blockbusters (with a few important exceptions) and rude audience members who talk or look at their phones, oblivious to their boneheaded ways. I understand that frustration better than most. To me the movies are church, and that guy mansplaining the movie to his girlfriend is a blasphemer, maybe even a criminal who should be locked up for a few days.
Fortunately though, the bad apples are few and far between. And movies really aren't THAT expensive. Sure, they cost more than they used to, but so does everything. Don't forget, movie theatres have gotten better. They sound better, the screens are bigger and crisper, the seats have gotten more comfortable and in many cases, recline with foot rests. For anyone living in a condo or apartment, there is no home experience to equal it.
Say you're a bigger cynic than me and you don't mind the quality of a poorly filmed pirated movie, or you watch clips on YouTube to get the gist and can't focus on a two hour movie because it's 'too long' for your busy schedule. Well let me try to convince you. Give me a chance to win you over with a little experiment.
Pick a movie that you can watch at home and easily find in theatres right now. For this hypothetical we'll pick Jurassic Park. It's been atop the box office again this last month and is playing in multiple theatres in most major markets, and everyone has seen it. Even my ex girlfriend who never bothered with Star Wars knows Jurassic Park inside out.
Now, pick your favourite scene from that movie. Maybe it's the arrival to the island with John Hammond and John Williams trading emotional punches to introduce you to real dinosaurs for the first time. Maybe it's Allan Grant pulling focus from the T-rex to help Tim and Alex escape. Or maybe it's that iconic jeep race where Ian Malcolm begs Muldoon to drive faster. Whatever it is, watch those scenes on your phone or home television before heading to the theatre to watch the movie again. I promise you, money back guaranteed, you will appreciate these moments more in a theatre.
Movie theatres are a communal experience. They are about community and feeling moved, excited, hopeful, scared, loved TOGETHER. Psychologically speaking, we need this communal interaction and storytelling tradition. It is vital to our humanity. We laugh harder when an audience is in on the joke. Don't believe me, compare your own reaction to your favourite stand up comedy live versus on Netflix.
With the advent of smart phones and endless serialized streaming, we benefit from stories told with cutting edge technology, with craftsmen at their peak, succinctly, completely, in one sitting. Themes and emotional connections to characters are compact, tidy and do their job without getting lost on the way, and you don't need to risk weeks of commitment to become invested in a well made movie.
None of these experiences can be replicated on television, on streaming, on social media. Television is wonderful and does specific things movies cannot, but likewise, movies do things television series cannot and never will. Part of that is owing to movie theatres and the audio-visual experience they offer, but also the business model they make possible.
It is a MYTH that movies and theatres are getting worse.
Here's a bit of a controversial statement. It is a MYTH that movies and theatres are getting worse. The worst theatrical blockbusters, the Fast & Furious 9's and the Doolittle's are still better crafted, more complete and satisfying experiences than the best 'blockbusters' Netflix has to offer. The likes of 'The Old Guard,' 'Bright,' 'Birdbox,' and 6 Underground' are just theatrical rejects that were deemed too disastrous to put into a movie theatre.
The theatrical experience is so refined, that the overwhelming majority of theatrically released movies meet a minimum threshold for quality, even at their worst. Their are exceptions, but as someone who sees almost every theatrical movie, big and small, I write with confidence and some expertise on the issue. The theatrical system helps weed out and promote the biggest and the best movies, and despite the naysayers that complain about the lack of quality movies since the 2000's or 1990's or 1980's, there has been a steady improvement in pace, in dialogue quality, in realism, in effects, in costume design, in make-up, and in every other process involved. Don't believe me? Go watch a movie trailer promoting a movie in the 80's, compared to today. That's not just taste that's changed. Its a demonstrable improvement in the way filmmakers and studios communicate with audiences.
Move theatres are not worse. They were not dying before the pandemic, and there was reason to hope that more affordable effects, audience preference for practical sets and better stories was improving the blockbusters we were getting every year. The success of Blumhouse and was every bit as important to cinema as the success of Marvel.
Now though, even big theatre chains like AMC, Cinemark and Cineplex are likely to face bankruptcy and reorganization thanks to the pandemic. Margins were already razor thin and losses were mounting before January rolled around. Universal Pictures used the pandemic to force theatres into a theatrical window that is 75% shorter, which they claim will only apply to smaller films that fail to perform. But the precedent that it sends to other studios and to audiences will almost certainly cause irreparable damage.
It boils down to a couple key things. First, if you're an audience member, why would you pay $10-20 to see a movie in theatres, per person, when you can watch it two weeks later for half the price at home? Despite my case above, I'm well aware that most audiences don't have the patience for theatres. Moms would much rather entertain a gaggle of children on a couch with a home release of Scoob! than pay four times as much at the theatre, before snacks. And remember how important nostalgia is to my love of theatres (and baseball)? Well if young kids don't go to the theatres for their version of Jurassic Park or Star Wars, they won't feel the same connection to viewing movies at home.
Does that feel like a bit of a reach? Maybe it is, but consider that parents and their children are just one of the issues. The Paramount Accords, an old series of rules that among other things, prevented studios from owning their own theatres and controlling the exhibition of their movies, have now expired. That means that when these theatrical chains do go bankrupt, it'll be the studios buying up the corpses. Imagine for a moment, a world where only Disney theatres play Disney movies, or play them opening week. And you have to travel an hour to reach a theatre playing a movie from Warner Brothers.
What the changes in the market mean are fewer and fewer reasons to see movies theatrically, even if prices stay where they are and the pandemic ends by Christmas. (It will not, sorry to say.) What it all amounts to is what Steven Spielberg predicted a decade ago. A theatrical experience that is more premium, reserved for the largest blockbusters and event films, with ticket prices akin to a concert or live theatrical experience. Everything else will be available on your phone or computer.
That sounds great to the people who watch Jurassic Park on an iPad and think that's how it was meant to be watched. Easy access to the content is what matters to them, not how they watch it, or in how many sittings. What it all amounts to is a poorer artistic and poorer emotional experience, that has no equal in all of history. Movies are the pinnacle of humanity's ability to tell stories. More than novels, more than television, more than comics or paintings or live theatre, filmmaking combined all of our arts, all of our technical expertise, all of our brilliance, into a compact and emotionally deep medium that may never be matched.
There are many other nuanced ways that the devolution of theatres hurts and or changes filmmaking. For better or worse, content made for a smaller screen in smaller doses means less beautiful wide shots and masterfully staged one shot scenes. It means more coverage, quicker shooting schedules, tighter angles that are easier to watch on a small screen and faster cutting. The shorter shooting schedules mean flatter, less interesting lighting and less creativity in staging of action.
More than any of that, the change in budgets means that just about any 'mid-range' project is required to be a series. This is already true, as studios have stopped making major release theatrical thrillers or dramas in the mid to high eight figures. A blockbuster must check certain action sequence boxes and feature X amount of action. It's why we have so many super hero movies. Not because these are the only scripts worth making, but because when it comes to action movies, they are the only ones that check the boxes needed to market and release a blockbuster today.
It all adds up to a diminished, less creative film industry. When I was a boy, I wanted to be a filmmaker like Spielberg or Scott. I've long since let go of such lofty ambitions, but the greater tragedy is that the filmmakers of tomorrow will not find heroes of their own to aspire to.
So while movie theatres deserve to preserved as they are, as diverse, affordable and exciting venues of communal gathering, I fear they will become a luxury and a gimmick. I feel great pity for the generations after us, that will likely grow up without emotional experience of movie theatres, as they were meant to be.