A Sense of Loss as Movie Theaters Close

Black Widow - Publicity Still 1 - H 2020
<p>Marvel’s 'Black Widow' is set for domestic release Nov. 6.</p>   |   Walt Disney Studios
The ability to go to the movies pales in comparison to many of life's essentials affected by the coronavirus pandemic, but the chance to experience art (good, bad and mediocre) with an audience is an irreplaceable means to connect with humanity.

We aren’t going to the movies. It’s one of the obvious truths resulting from the coronavirus pandemic that has swept across the world, and yet it’s something that, at least for me, is still sinking in. As someone who frequents the movie theater once, sometimes twice a week, and has for the past 15 years, there is a specific kind of emptiness that comes from knowing you won’t be going to the theater for the foreseeable future. And as someone who diligently makes personalized release-schedule calendars, prioritizing each film I want to see, well, deleting entire calendar months filled with films that may not be seen this spring and summer, or even this year, feels like a reaping resulting in a sudden loss of structure. No, I don’t think we’re facing the end of theatrical distribution, even with NBCUniversal breaking the theatrical release window, but I do think, at least for a while, many film fans will experience a sense of loss as though something sacred has been removed from our lives.

Yes, our ability to go to the movies pales in comparison to many of life’s essentials that are affected by this pandemic, like food, medicine, income and all of the other necessities. But our ability to experience art (good art, bad art, mediocre art) in the format it was meant to be presented in is a means to connect with humanity, and for me has often felt akin to, if not church, then a sanctuary. Moviegoing is a social experience, and despite certain annoyances that come from audiences on their cellphones and those who talk during movies, there is nothing that beats going to the theater and sitting in a darkened room with strangers and having an experience, an experience I’ve often found enriched by the reactions of others. It’s not just the movie itself that creates this experience. It’s entering the lobby and feeling the buzz of excitement before a big audience. It’s the roulette wheel of getting an inkling of audience consensus or a spoiler that comes from walking past exiting moviegoers. It’s watching the trailers and feeling the surge of excitement that comes from seeing a highly anticipated upcoming release. All of these things create the experience of moviegoing, and that’s something that can’t be replicated from home, even with all of its comforts.

Last week’s postponement of A Quiet Place Part II, Mulan, F9, Antlers and The New Mutants was just the beginning. It felt like a blow, but the reality of the fact that we wouldn’t be going to the movies didn’t hit me until Thursday night when I went to see The Hunt at the nearest multiplex. The turnout for the new Blumhouse film, along with other new releases Bloodshot and I Still Believe, was never going to be huge. But the theater parking lot was a desert, with no more than about a couple dozen cars, a good deal of those belonging to theater employees. Already the way I usually felt going to the movies had been impacted, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I should even be there. With a bottle of hand sanitizer in my pocket and my ticket already purchased on my phone so that I could avoid human contact, I pressed on.

The lobby was barren. A few employees were milling about, and a middle-aged man hovered several feet away from the empty concession stand, glancing up at a trio of employees waiting for their time on the clock to end, and then thinking better of it and walking away. I took my phone to the ticket scanner, and caught a giant poster for The New Mutants “April 3," out of the corner of my eye. It was in the exact same place a previous poster that announced a New Mutants release date of “Feb. 22, 2019” had once been displayed. I wondered if there would be a collector’s market for these posters for the long-delayed film one day.

I put the QR code for my ticket up to the scanner and nothing happened. I tried several more times before a theater employee came over and asked if he could give it a try. Hesitantly, I said sure, and he picked up my phone. I got an internal spike of anxiety thinking about the coronavirus that could be making its way onto my screen. The scanner didn’t work, so I had to go over to the box office attendee and go through that whole process. Human contact unsuccessfully avoided. Once again, I thought that going to the movies shouldn’t feel like this and wondered if I should even be there.

But I was there, and ticket in hand, I made my way to the theater. I passed a theater manager forlornly taking down posters for A Quiet Place Part II, no longer coming "March 20." When I think of a single image that sums up my feelings about not being able to go to the movies, it’s that theater manager, kneeling on the floor and sadly rolling up posters for movies that would no longer be showing. When I got to my theater, five on the left, I took my assigned seat in the third row. I never buy tickets for the third row but I wanted to be as far away from the scattered few who had also decided to make the trek out to support The Hunt. The first trailer was for The New Mutants, which had managed to become the omen of moviegoing for the night.

The evening’s strange experience didn’t prevent me from enjoying The Hunt, but there was a certain emptiness that I walked away with. The film was so clearly geared towards big audience reactions — laughs, cheers, boos, gasps, all the stuff that makes movies, especially horror movies, such an event to see with a crowd. Compared to the experience of seeing The Invisible Man a couple weeks ago, and feeling the air leave the room when THAT scene happened, The Hunt left me wanting for a more involved audience, one that the six others who also attended that showing couldn’t possibly provide. I walked out of the theater, entertained the idea of making it a double-feature and catching Bloodshot — after all, it seemed like it might be my last chance to go to the movies for a while. As I rounded the hall, a man a few feet ahead of me coughed, and I headed straight towards the exit door and back into the parking lot.

We’ve lost something. Even as I’m writing this, the news of Black Widow being postponed is breaking and I realize that the experience we’ve lost won’t be found for a while. This is unprecedented, and we’re in uncharted territory — even the weeks following 9/11 saw new fims released and a chance to escape to that darkened room, not to forget reality but to expand our understanding of it. Now, theaters have shuttered their doors and the popcorn poppers have gone cold. There was no other way it could have gone. I, like so many others, don’t want to go to the movie theater and worry about bringing the coronavirus home to my family, but I also don’t want to watch new releases on VOD in my living room. Maybe, a couple weeks from now, I’ll feel differently and rent Trolls: World Tour for $19.99 out of desperation, but when it comes to this spring and summer’s releases — even my most anticipated releases like Black Widow, Wonder Woman 1984 and Candyman — I’d rather wait until I can see them in theaters. Even if it takes a year, because seeing something for the first time in a theater is irreplaceable.

We aren’t going to the movies, and without a shred of hyperbole, it hurts. It hurts film studios. It hurts distributors. It hurts filmmakers. And It hurts moviegoers, like you and me. But we’ll make it through, and one day our social interactions won’t be so distant, our theaters will open their doors again, inviting us in with the smell of hot popcorn and the promise of that darkened room where we’ll share in art’s most collaborative form. And when that day comes, I’ll see you at the movies.