As the conversations start about how and when to peel back the layers of restrictions set up by stay at home orders, I’m thinking about one part of this as a person who loves going to the movies:
Until there’s a widely available vaccine, how are we going to go back to movie theaters?
How can we return to being comfortable sharing that much personal space with a room full of strangers, sitting elbow-to-elbow (or recliner-to-recliner)? Even if theaters adopt a practice of underselling venues, that doesn’t change the basic theater layout that requires you to squeeze past each other to find your seat, go to the bathroom, or get a refill.
But if we’re unable to confidently return to the theater, part of what makes movies so memorable and engaging could be drastically altered.
The crowd is part of the story
My high school drama teacher always reminded us that “acting is reacting,” and that it wasn’t just about reacting to the other performers on stage, but knowing how to draw energy from the audience. It made every performance different.
With a film, the performances are always the same, but the people you view those performances with can shape a completely different experience.
It’s like in 12 Monkeys, when Bruce Willis’s James Cole sits in a theater with Madeline Stowe’s Dr. Kathryn Railly as they watch a movie he remembers from childhood:
“The movie never changes. It can’t change; but every time you see it, it seems different because you’re different. You see different things.”
I thought about this when I read the Indoor Voices blog post I Miss Audiences Losing Their Shit, because it reminded me of all the times that the people I was in the theater with changed the way I saw the movie.
Because it wasn’t just the film that was memorable
I think about the night I went to see Snakes on a Plane on its opening weekend, and how the entire packed theater started howling with laughter from the moment the title card appeared on screen and didn’t stop until the credits rolled.
Or seeing Toy Story 3 at a late evening screening in a theater with few, if any children. Most of us in the seats had been kids when the first Toy Story came out, and while we’d grown up a little faster than Andy, his sense of putting away childish things still felt raw, and the toys’ fears of annihilation felt a little more tangible.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and knowing that the other adults in the room were sobbing just as hard over a cartoon gave everyone that little bit of emotional space to let it all out.
There was the opening night of the 46th Ann Arbor Film Festival, where I sat with my co-workers from the festival in the Michigan Theater, enjoying not only the films that were programmed that night, but the fact that we’d kept the doors open with a Hail Mary fundraising drive and survived a First Amendment lawsuit against the state government.
We weren’t just celebrating the films, but the triumph of preserving a showcase for this type of independent, experimental filmmaking.
And there was the entire third act of Avengers: Endgame, where ten years of storytelling came together, plants were paid off, the crowd cheered at all the big moments, and that long fought battle of good vs. evil finally, finally gave the good guys a win that didn’t hint at a larger conflict still to come.
For once, good could rest knowing its work was done, and we as an audience could exhale, feeling like the most important thing to talk about as we left the theater was the movie we just watched, and not the next one.
But it’s not just the audience: It’s the theater itself
The theater provides a sense of place for the story you’re about to watch. We buy our tickets, find our seats, see an uninterrupted story from start to finish, and watch our hopes and fears made manifest.
It’s a sacred space, cut off from the rest of our day, in which we enter the dark to briefly dream together.
I think about the time I took my daughter to see her first film in the theater. It was Despicable Me 3. She was going to go on a field trip to the movies with her day care the next week, and I didn’t want her first major theatrical experience to be without me.
We were able to go to a matinee on a Tuesday and do the whole traditional theater experience thanks in part to discounted tickets and half-price popcorn.
There weren’t many people there (the film had been in release for over two weeks at the time), and we settled in to our seats. We ate popcorn. We laughed. She was incredibly focused for being so young and never having been in the theater before. But that’s part of it.
There are rules. This isn’t sitting at home on your couch. You can’t just pause the movie, or trade seats, or decide that you’d rather wander over to another corner of the room and play with some toys for a little bit.
When we go to the theater, we share the space and should be mindful of the others we share it with. We want to be a good audience, not only for the film, but for each other.
It’s not the same if the movie plays in your home.
Our family rented Trolls: World Tour when it was released on demand. We talked about how it was actually kind of nice to be able to see a brand new movie without setting up a sitter for our youngest, and not having to schlep ourselves to the theater. To be able to pause the movie (and to watch it again if we started it within the next 72 hours). We talked about the fact that it cost less than taking our whole family to a matinee.
But all the convenience and economy of the moment couldn’t replace the idea of fully surrendering to another world.
We were watching the movie in the same room that we FaceTime our extended family, or do Cosmic Kids yoga videos, check work emails, or let Button roll and wiggle on the floor as he tries to figure out how to crawl.
There was no sense of surrender to the film, or of communion with strangers. We weren’t stepping into another world, but bringing a story into our private space. The story was framed by all the reminders of our present daily life, good and bad.
Right now, a chance to step outside of our world, even for 80 or 90 minutes, would be a welcome thing.
But the calculus has changed
We will be told it’s safe to come back probably sooner than many people will feel comfortable doing so. Our individual hope to return to some sense of normal will tug at us, and make us want to believe that it will be easy to slip back into at least some of our old routines.
But I think about how people are reacting to a clear and present danger right now, and wonder how I’ll feel about them after the current crisis has been contained.
I think about the people who are ignoring (and in some cases, flaunting their refusal to follow) social distancing guidelines at this time of high rates of infection. And I think about how these are potentially the same people who may also have shrugged off actually washing their hands when they left a public restroom before concepts like “flattening the curve” became part of our daily conversation.
Because if there are enough people not taking hygiene and communicable disease seriously now, chances are they’re only going to continue to laugh it off later.
It’s not just a question of when will infection rates and precautionary measures make the risk low enough to return theater-going to a normal part of life: It’s a question of if we will we feel we can trust our seat neighbors to care about the people around them.
Because if we want a chance to share the experience in the theater again, we will all need to agree how to safely share space.