If there’s one mundane thing I miss about the world pre-COVID (and there is a lot I miss — a beer and a shot from a grimy bar; standing in a crowded restaurant for brunch on a Saturday, walking around Target on a Sunday afternoon aimlessly, buying knick-knacks and canned tomatoes and bathroom organizers), I might miss going to the movies the most. Burning a weekend afternoon in an air-conditioned, dark room watching a 50-foot movie screen in surround sound while eating popcorn and drinking a massive, ice-cold Sprite is one of the most wholesome pleasures in the world. That’s why it pains me to say this: I may never step foot in a movie theater again.
In my work, I regularly cover pandemic-related-business-happenings, which is why I was shocked to see the sheer breadth of the actions that movie theater conglomerates were willing to undergo to reopen their doors as soon as possible. Making the movie theater like the airport with TSA-style check-ins like temperature screenings, questionnaires, and face-mask requirements. Staggering arrivals of movie theater goers in order to limit crowding. Pre-ordering snacks and drinks before arrival. Covering movie theater seats with paper wrapping as though it’s a doctor’s office or a public toilet. Limited capacity.
While all of these precautions are legitimate, reasonable, and necessary, I simply do not want to do them. Why would I go to a movie theatre if I have to sign a Disney-world-style waiver to do so? Why would I go to a movie theatre if I have to wear a face mask for three and a half hours and avoid going into the public restroom for fear of COVID-19 particulate flying around from flushing toilets? And why would I go to a movie theater to watch Christopher Nolan’s Tenet when all of the above precautions won’t actually keep me 100% safe from COVID-19? Is seeing Mulan in movie theaters worth risking my life and the life of the others I live with? No. It isn’t! To suggest otherwise is, quite frankly, bonkers, and to ask consumers to do all of these things just so they can listen to some Dolby Surround Sound that they can have in their home TV room because the movie theater is magic is also, frankly, irresponsible from a public health perspective.
Yes, I’d rather movie theaters do these things than not do them. But the reality is that I won’t be going to the movies anymore. Not for a long time, and maybe never again.
Of course, this is my choice as an individual consumer. But it’s also my rational choice as someone who has forever been enthralled by the magic of the movie theater. Seeing a movie in a movie theater is not worth risking death, life-long debilitating symptoms, or a trip to a crowded ICU. Of course, since movie theaters across the country have been closed, studios have rationally responded in turn by delaying the release of summer blockbusters like the aforementioned Tenet and Mulan. While I get it — these big budget movies need a massive return at the box office in order to be, well, blockbusters — I also think that this is a choice that has functionally ignored the reality of the next few years of our lives. Mulan cannot be delayed forever, and despite the announcement that Christopher Nolan is pushing back the mid-August release of Tenet into the indefinite future, the solution to this problem should not be that we’ll only see new films in a few years.
Which is why I think that major studios and minor studios alike should release a lot more of their films to streaming. I am not a film industry expert, I understand that there are financial limitations to this type of release, but at the end of the day, I think there’s a reasonable cohort of people who would pay $20 to rent a movie from the comfort of their homes — at least for the time being.
Instead, it seems that major movie studios are largely digging their heels in. The Conjuring 4 just got pushed back to a June 4, 2021 release date. Mulan, currently slated for release in August, will likely be pushed back alongside Tenet, making it a sad summer for those who love major blockbusters and Disney. Some smaller-time movies have managed to come out to great fanfare. Invisible Man and The King of Staten Island released to streaming to decent fanfare. Hell, I’d pay to watch Mulan with the mental comfort of knowing I won’t be at the center of an epidemiological outbreak or I won’t be putting someone who makes $11.50 an hour to take my ticket stub and check my back for illicit candy at risk of freaking dying.
I am not suggesting that movie theaters close for good. But I do think that we should simply cut the shit and recognize that, until there is a vaccine that is approved for global use, manufactured for some 8 billion people, and then distributed widely, there will not realistically be a future where I feel like sitting in a stale, dark, air-conditioned room with 50 other strangers for two to three hours is safe, no matter how many paper coverings, bleach sprays, and face-masks I don.
Until breathing in public isn’t a crime, and until I can dawdle at the snack counter and stare at the candy menu in awe and personally pump an insane amount of butter onto my movie theater popcorn, I don’t think I’ll be going back to the AMC. After all, what is a movie theater for, if not for that? Until that point, I am going to watch my movies at home. I can only hope that studios recognize that there is a real market for that type of thing — and start to release films accordingly.