My Experience Going Back to the Movie Theater Amid the Pandemic

The picture I took inside of the movie theater.

On the scale of concerns amid a global pandemic that has killed more than one million people, including more than 210,000 in America, movie theaters are a distant concern. I get it. But if there’s one thing I miss during the pandemic that I took for granted (this excludes family stuff, as I know plenty of people who have had funerals and weddings nixed, and haven’t even seen their parents in-person in months), it’s movie theaters.

In fact, this year, I finally did something I should have done years ago: I signed on for the AMC Stubs A-List. If I recall, I pay less than $15 a month and get three movies (any platform, regular, Dolby, IMAX, 3-D) every single week. That deal for a cinephile like me is a no-brainer. Naturally, I made that leap in January 2020, and by March 2020, the pandemic hit and theaters were closed. Oh, and 2020 is the 100-year anniversary of AMC Theaters. Oof.

Even though movie theaters were allowed back open in June here in Ohio, AMC didn’t reopen until August, and it still took another two months for me to go back to my love of the motion picture, with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (my film review will be a later post) last night, Oct. 10.

For the most part, movie theaters are trying to goad people back with screenings of classic films and offering cheap pricing since Hollywood, obviously, hasn’t put any new films down the pipeline, or if they have, they’ve gone straight to streaming, or unfortunately, have been pushed off until 2021 or even 2022. Nolan’s has been the only “blockbuster” film since the pandemic started to still come out.

I don’t care what anyone says: Watching a new release film on streaming is not the same as watching it in the theater. I love the theater experience, and like the old fashioned person I am, I guess, who also hangs on to physical books and will die before I get a Kindle, I will also hang on to the nostalgia of the movie theater.

There’s risk involved because it’s indoors. No matter the ventilation system, the mask mandate, and the social distancing, all of which were in play, it’s still risky. It’s a pandemic. Particularly risky is eating popcorn and/or drinking soda, as I did (although it’s nice that it’s contactless exchange to get it). Fortunately, I gobbled down the popcorn I wanted, which I can never eat a lot of, before anyone else was in the theater.

I sat the top back row, as I always do, at the Dolby theater, and a family of two kids was down at the bottom, with two sets of couples scattered elsewhere. Again, after the popcorn, I wore my mask the entire time.

And goodness I missed it. The Dolby experience brands itself as extra sharp, extra loud and you get the visceral feel of that sound through the seats. I missed it. When the previews came on, and I didn’t even think there would be any, I was downright giddy.

I don’t know if or how movie theaters are going to survive though. For all intents and purposes, there will be nothing like a normal movie crowd for nearly two years because of the pandemic. How are they going to make it? And the amount of people that impacts aren’t just rich Hollywood types; it’s the thousands and thousands of workers who depend not just on the movie theaters, but Hollywood itself and film productions.

It’s staggering to consider, and for someone hanging on to the movie experience, that makes me sad. Pulling up to the theater on a Friday night and seeing a ghost town of a parking lot, when it normally would be packed, also made me sad.

Cineworld is set to close all of its U.S. and U.K. venues (known in the U.S. as Regal) after the latest James Bond film was pushed off of the 2020 calendar. How can AMC survive? I did my part, but I’m only one person.

One positive sign is that in South Korea, 31.5 million visited the movie theaters in the country between February and September, and not one case of virus transmission was found. Not one. But! An important caveat: South Korea isn’t seeing the spread we’re seeing. For example, they had about 24,476 cases reported on Oct. 9. By comparison, we had 58,000.

I wouldn’t encourage people to go to the movie theater because it’s not my place to tell them what level of risk to assume. But I would suggest, if you are going to a movie theater, go to one that is at least mandating masks and contactless orders. That helps.

My hope is that somehow, someway, movie theaters can survive both the onslaught of the virus and obviously, the long-trending pivot toward streaming. There’s nothing like the movie theater experience.

In a letter to Congress urging a bailout of movie theaters, the National Association of Theater Owners, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Directors Guild Association, said the moviegoing experience is “central to American life.”

“268 million people in North America went to the movies last year to laugh, cry, dream, and be moved together. Theaters are great unifiers where our nation’s most talented storytellers showcase their cinematic accomplishments. Every aspiring filmmaker, actor, and producer dreams of bringing their art to the silver screen, an irreplaceable experience that represents the pinnacle of filmmaking achievement.”

I’m the right person for that pitch, so I have a hard time disagreeing. There is nothing like that silver screen, but I’m afraid the pandemic may kill it. For an optimistic take that the moviegoing experience will survive, and I needed it, check this piece out from Entertainment Strategy Guy.

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