Is that a wrap? Examining the state of movie theaters in 2020

I was recently asked, quite ironically through an open mouth full of food, “What is your biggest pet peeve?” Regardless of living in a world full of slow drivers and toilet seats left up, I had a simple answer that instantly brought me back to February 8, 2014. 

After I grabbed my ticket stub and large Sierra Mist, I shuffled to theater three to see the attendant already closing the door. Not wanting to blind dozens of innocent folk moments after they were plunged into darkness, I quickly Cupid-shuffled my way in with the obscenely large soda in hand. Following a handful of previews, an underrated part of the experience, Morgan Freeman’s velvety baritone guided me into “The Lego Movie.” However, after 20 minutes of plastic antics, George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” erupted from a few rows back. 

“Paul here. Yeah I can talk. Some Lego kids movie. No, I’m in the back. It’s whatever.” 

Now don’t get me wrong, I am generally an agreeable person, but there is a special place waiting in the afterlife for people like my new friend Paul. 

Fast forward a handful of years, and, as I left the Holland 7 after seeing “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” (a complete dumpster fire, but don’t tell my date I said so), I didn’t realize it was the last time I would see the silver screen for months to come. Following massive national closures due to COVID-19, thousands of theaters — local and chain, arthouse and blockbuster — were mandated to shut their doors. AMC announced an expected loss of over two billion U.S. dollars in the first financial quarter alone and expressed having “substantial doubt” that they would be able to recover following the pandemic, reports CNN’s Frank Pallotta. The film industry, both in production and distribution, came to a grinding, hemorrhaging halt and led many to question the plausibility of recovery. 

But of course the ability to view films didn’t evaporate. Streaming services that offer a plethora of movies and shows saw an uptick in traffic as millions were confined to their homes. Some traditional drive-in movie theaters even managed to reopen sooner than expected with their ability to offer distanced viewing (“Toy Story 4” was a good time through the windshield of a Pontiac Vibe). A large amount of industry attention has been directed at the all-digital opening weekend of “Trolls World Tour” as it soon breached 100 million dollars globally, affirming the marketability of Premium Video On Demand (PVOD) services. While this one film was a toe in the water, its ability to drum up attention ensures that regardless of theater recovery, accessing film digitally will not be fading anytime soon. 

Looking forward, the big question for both cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike is whether brick and mortar theaters will continue to even exist. Despite the doubt leveled at their reopening, AMC has already begun to cut the tape for a number of locations as of late August, in time for the release of films like the much anticipated Christopher Nolan directed “Tenet” and X-Men spinoff “The New Mutants.” While all the theaters that have opened up must follow strict guidelines for distancing and maintaining capacity, the projectors are starting to roll once again. We Michiganders and fellow on-campus students, however, need to wait a bit longer, as shutdown orders maintained by Governor Whitmer have prevented theaters from resuming business until at least September 4, though we look forward to hearing more  from her this week. Even in states where reopening is permitted, many theaters are hesitant to open their doors, and their potential patrons are just as hesitant to buy a ticket. 

In light of these cautions, we do have the gift to start reconsidering what a movie theater experience really is. It is clear that the “big players” and the “little guys” are both affected. With Hollywood itself bleeding out controversy and financial loss on the daily, maybe now is the time for smaller film companies, art houses and indie filmers to capitalize in order to gain a firmer grasp on the film community. For example, small showings of avant-garde work have had the opportunity to spring up. Outside showings in parks, sports fields and parking lots can bring communities together. Shows by diverse peoples previously overlooked might now be able to muster attention in a rebuilding field. Maybe movies will no longer be shown in dedicated buildings with overpriced popcorn and gummy worms, but instead could inhabit exciting new settings. Will “the blockbuster” ever disappear? No, Michael Bay has a job for now, but there is a vacuum hungry for fresh new film and similarly fresh ways to view them. 

Understandably, movies are not a necessity of life. They are a form of entertainment — at best a hobby — and in times like these, we all need to form priorities. But going to a movie in the theater is so vastly different from watching Netflix in your “Die Hard” pajamas (Got something to say?). It’s a community living room where everyone’s identity disappears into the dark, only illuminated by flickers and glows. Nothing compares to participating in a live laugh track or gasping in unity. It’s escapism at its finest, and I miss it so dearly. So, hopefully by September 4… See ya at the movies, kid.

Tim Embertson ('21) is a Staff Writer at the Anchor.

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