April 23, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Why COVID-19 can’t kill the movie industry

In “Soul,” the latest Pixar masterpiece, a man who has spent years attempting to achieve a highly specific vision of what his life should be learns that success, and art, beauty and grace come in many forms. And in the end, the form is not as important as the ability to accept the success, and the art, beauty and grace of life itself.

I sincerely hope that is not a spoiler but it may well be, especially for those working in the industry that created “Soul.”

Seriously, do people who make movies ever bother to watch them? Here is a multibillion-dollar industry that regularly ignores its own product — stories of resilience, hope and the indomitable human ability to overcome horrendous obstacles — to howl predictions of its own death with every cultural shift or industry innovation.

Even as movie theaters grew from single screens on Main Street to 26-screen megaplexes circling every city and town, the film industry saw only threats — television; videocassettes, then DVDs; piracy; the rise of the superstar, the fall of the superstar; blockbuster franchises; mega-mergers; the habits of young people; streaming services; and now, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic.

The last two are the most current, and directly disruptive, reasons for time-of-death predictions. With their reliance on large groups of people gathering together, both creative teams and audience, the performing arts have been hit hard — most theaters of all kinds have been closed indefinitely and the only “takeout” or “delivery” option is some form of television/streaming. But where theatrical and live-music events see an obvious emergency stop-gap, filmmakers consider an irrevocable surrender to forces they have been battling for years.

When Warner Bros., Disney and other studios chose to release many (or in Warner Bros.’ case, all) of 2020 and 2021’s slated films on streaming platforms, hands already chafed by too much hand sanitizer were wrung raw as filmmakers and executives once again lamented the death of film as we know it.

Honestly, it sometimes seems that the only people who do not believe in the power of movies are the people who make them.

There is no doubt that the entertainment industry is changing, drastically, for good and ill, just as it has regularly changed, for good and ill, since its earliest days. (Remember Aromavision? Not a thing, but drive-ins are back.) Piracy is real and damaging, Disney’s absorption of Fox was deeply upsetting and the lack of production and box office returns in 2020 is a terrible thing for a wide range of people, especially those working below the line and behind the counters. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on many industries, including film, and there will be irrevocable damage to theater chains, studios and forsaken projects.

But the death of movies as we know them? Come on.

First of all, movies released on streaming services are still, you know, movies, with all the good, bad and ugly that implies. Bereft of the traditional fanfare — the big premiere, the ancillary events, the box office standings, the in-theater promotions — conversations about this year’s films have certainly felt muted but the work remains what the work would always have been. As Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) learns in “Soul,” relying too obsessively on a preconceived notion of the artistic life does not fan the creative spark; it often deprives it of oxygen.

Does the inability to see films on the big screen in a theater’s dark embrace deplete some of their power? Perhaps, but a well-told story doesn’t rely on Dolby sound. Any movie worth seeing on a big screen is worth seeing on a small screen as well, and if your film requires the enforced stillness of a theater to maintain viewer attention, well, maybe the venue is not the problem.

If filmmakers are, as most claim to be, trying to reach an audience beyond their peers, streaming services are far more efficient than even California’s wealth of megaplexes — and the solace, inspiration and resonance of cinematic stories have never been a more vital cultural conduit.

Yet I come to praise theatrical releases, not to bury them.

Anecdotal evidence may be the hobgoblin of history but I don’t know a single person who is not longing, with something akin to physical pain, to go to the movies again.

When theaters reopened, briefly, in Ventura and Orange counties, people of my acquaintance rearranged their days and drove miles to visit them; some even rented the whole theater, for heaven’s sake.

Were we excited that “Soul” and “Wonder Woman” had streaming debuts on Christmas Day to offer some semblance of the holiday moviegoing experience? Absolutely. Was it the same as ending an exhausting shopping day at the movies, all those just-purchased presents at your feet, or bundling everyone in the car to eat your smuggled-in stocking candy at the local cineplex? Absolutely not.

Among my family and friends, there have been many months of heretical but repeated vows to never again complain about the exorbitant price of a ticket or a large soda if only we can please, pretty please with $8 Skittles on top, go to the movies again.

I spent years of my professional life arguing that television, not film, was the ascendant cinematic art form of the 21st century and I stand by that. (I’m looking at you, “The Queen’s Gambit.”) Yet after months of all-you-can-watch TV, my dream day is to shut down all personal screens, enter some vast megaplex for the first show and work my way through every film available, feasting on hot dogs, pretzels, popcorn and cheesy nachos, until the final credits of the last screening. To take my kids to some movie I would never see on my own in a million years because it’s the only one they can all agree on. To reinstate Saturday night movie-date night with my husband even if it means letting him pick the film every time and only going to theaters with old uncomfortable seating. To gather large groups of people, including many with whom I have never before gone to the movies, watch a film and then spend hours crowded over pizza arguing about it. To be part of a laughing, weeping, stunned silent or even collectively disappointed audience again.

When the movie theaters are open and safe once again, I plan to go every single night. I will let my kid skip school to go to movies if she wants, will drive large numbers of her friends to see films they care about only because Harry Styles is in them. I will drop them off and find joy in the jostling groups of teenagers swarming in front of the box office.

I will buy every membership pass to every chain available and happily watch each and every 2020 film I have already seen at least once again on the big screen. Even the ones I didn’t like all that much.

And I am not alone. Everyone wants to go to the movies again, not just because it will mark a very real return to those nonpandemic days we so recently took for granted — never again, you old movie house! — but for the sheer specific pleasure of it. The hum of the lobby, the buttery breath of the concession stand, the hand-holding couples in line, the rows of expectant faces staring up from their seats, the huddle of shucked jacket at your back, the scramble of last-minute candy distribution, the wondrous welter of trailers, even that guy who can’t seem to keep track of the characters and apparently never learned to whisper.

I miss many things from prepandemic life but nothing (beyond the lack of rising death counts) so painfully as going to the movies.

So don’t tell me that Warner Bros.’ decision to release its 2021 slate on HBO Max is the death of the movie industry — if, in spring or summer, people can safely see any of those movies in theaters, they will.

Some movie houses and chains may not survive these next surging months, and streaming services will inevitably impact the long-term future of the megaplex sprawl. But if the ’20s are going to roar, as so many experts predict, the loudest sound you will hear will be the rush of exultant vaccinated masses as they abandon their sofas and toss away their remotes because, hurry up, put on your shoes, it’s time to go to the movies.