No hope for movie theaters for now. After Christopher Nolan’s maximalist and meaningless Tenet—budgeted at $200 million—came and went in the United States with about a week’s worth of attention, movie theaters are facing another indefinite shutdown. Nobody in New York or Los Angeles could see Tenet, a big and confusing movie that Nolan meant for people to see multiple times (no), and the booming score and sound design drowned out most drive-in customers, and even for people that saw it in relatively clear and comfortable conditions (like me), it was a nice expensive machine that did nothing. Somehow, Nolan made driving a real plane into a warehouse full of fine art look banal. What a way to end movies in America!
Regal Cinemas is the first of many probable victims of the pandemic: they reopened in August, and are promptly closing again. There’s nothing to see but Tenet, the new Sofia Coppola movie On the Rocks, classics that are worn out, and a handful of indie movies and write-off productions that no one’s desperate to see. I was looking forward to the new James Bond movie No Time to Die, and like Tenet, I’d see it with my mom at Baltimore’s Senator Theater and treat this once daily activity with some more respect and reverence: a coat and tie, in a movie palace. There are utopias of our own, even in bombed-out Berlin, even in blitzed-out London, even after radio and sound and television and streaming reared their ugly heads into the movie business throughout the last century.
R.T. Walston in The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday, in a story headlined “Regal Cinemas Likely Suspending Operations at All U.S. Locations,” that, “The string of delays casts a shadow over the remainder of 2020’s movie calendar and potentially over the entire theatrical industry. Last week, a cinema owners’ trade group joined leading filmmakers in sending a letter to lawmakers in the hopes of drumming up financial relief for the ailing sector.”
“‘If the status quo continues, 69% of small and midsize movie theater companies will be forced to file for bankruptcy or to close permanently,’ the National Association of Theatre Owners said in a written statement.”
The story concludes: “In states such as California and New York, theater owners large and small have expressed bewilderment as authorities have allowed some indoor establishments such as restaurants, bowling alleys and churches to open with capacity restrictions while requiring theaters keep their doors closed.” Pretty bewildering if you ask me. Bars and restaurants are more dangerous in terms of the virus, but they’re “essential”—not just for takeout. People need to be with each other, death be damned. It’s so goddamn stupid. There’s an enormous amount of people still wiping down their groceries like in March, and even more who, with puppy dog eyes, complain that they “haven’t hugged anyone in six months,” as if hugging is like raw dogging at the heights of the AIDS epidemic.
Andrew Cuomo’s comment about regular moviegoers last spring was revealing and typical of Americans’ attitude toward movie theaters now: “I am sure there is a whole group people who say, ‘I cannot live without going to the movies.’ But on a relative risk scale, a movie theater is less essential and poses a high risk. It is congregant. It is one ventilation system. You are seated there for a long period of time. Even if you are at 50% capacity with one or two seats between the two of you, this is a risk situation and…movie theaters are not that high on the list of essentials… Gyms for more New Yorkers are more essential than movie theaters.”
Theater attendance has plummeted in the last five years. There was a real drop off in quality too around 2018, and as a nearly daily moviegoer, it was a really sharp dip. Comedies, romantic or otherwise, have moved almost completely to streaming and other home formats, while most of the studio tentpole money is tied up in Marvel, DC, and Star Wars. I’ll take a Wonder Woman sequel, whatever I can get, but I know I’m not the average American in that regard. People don’t go to the movies as much as they used to and they don’t talk about the movies as much as they used to. That’s a perennial sentence you can find in film history and older movies. The cinema has faced half a dozen equally formidable apocalypses in the past, and for now, most everyone still spends a good chunk of their life staring at moving images on a screen accompanied by sound, somewhere. The art form isn’t dying, but exhibition might.
But even still at home, things are not the same: besides the obvious, there’s a wild difference in streaming quality between the numerous streaming services that provide fewer films than an average American video store 20 years ago. Netflix looks fine, Amazon Prime is terrible, and the Criterion Channel often cuts in and out. These go beyond anecdotes and personal experience. No one cares. Every day I pass by people eating and drinking outside, while the few movie theater seats that are available are left empty. In Hampden’s Rotunda complex, there’re dozens of restaurants, stores, and exercise fronts, along with a fancy CinéBistro theater. These kind of deluxe dine-in spaces are more popular in other countries, like Mexico, but here a crappy meal in the dark isn’t as appealing as a marginally less crappy meal out in the fall sun.
It’s pointless to despair over this possible end to exhibition because there’s nothing you can do. Support theaters in your area and make sure there will be at least one or two or three theaters left once the pandemic is over and going to the movies becomes a deluxe affair once again. But Regal, along with Loews and Landmark, are at the mercy of the public and their parent companies. No subsidies for the cinema, this isn’t France. I barely saw any comment on the Regal announcement this week, besides one tweet from someone I follow but don’t know: “I mean, who didn’t see this coming?” It was a foregone conclusion. Movies as we knew them in America are over now for now.
What comes next in exhibition is another question. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, along with Star Wars, are the only forces keeping any movie theaters open in this country. For all the fuss over Martin Scorsese’s comments last year that the MCU “isn’t cinema,” that behemoth of a studio might just save the cinema singlehandedly. There will be no Marvel movies in 2020, the first year since 2009, but there will be many in 2021, and even more in the decade to come. The question is whether those Marvel-owned theaters will show anything else. Will anyone care at that point, or will theaters become like carnivals and bowling alleys, serving an ever-shrinking but fervent fanbase?
If the only movies I can see in a giant dark room on a giant screen with big sound are superhero vehicles, at least bring back smoking inside—pot, not cigarettes. I’ll be good!
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith