Cinema Purgatorio: When Should Movie Theaters Reopen? Maybe Never.

Netflix fatigue. It’s practically a pandemic itself. The remedy? A shot of real-life cinema — square in the eye — coming soon to a theater near you. Someday. Maybe.

As part of Trump’s plan to reopen post-coronavirus America, cinemas will be among the first businesses to in the queue — at least according to this bit that recently surfaced in my newsfeed:

Theaters were hit hard by coronavirus closures, but they could be poised for a comeback under a three-phase plan unveiled Thursday by President Trump.

— USA TODAY

Source: Coronavirus: Cinemas would be among first to reopen under Trump plan

Specifically, cinemas are part of a proposed “Phase One” that includes “LARGE VENUES (e.g., sit-down dining, movie theaters, sporting venues, places of worship) can operate under strict physical distancing protocols,” reads the plan.

This might save your local multinational conglomerate’s theatrical chain but what about the indies and smaller operators who have had to innovate new ways of keeping an audience while waiting for their CARES Act loans to get funded? These rare, single-screen gems and art houses that don’t have access to, say, the $500 million in private debt funding that AMC Theatres is raising to weather COVID-19.

cinema
Photo by Amy Peryam.

“Theater owners have increasingly begun to float the possibility of reopening sometime in July, in the middle of what would normally be Hollywood’s key summer blockbuster movie season,” reports the Los Angeles Times. This is good news for players like AMC that have economies of the scale on their side (1,000 locations across the globe with more than half in the US in AMC’s case) but it also seems unreasonably ambitious, despite “flattening curves.” As the New York Times observes, “Surges are inevitable, the models predict, even when stadiums, churches, theaters, bars and restaurants remain closed…The tighter the restrictions, experts say, the fewer the deaths and the longer the periods between lockdown.”

CUT TO:

China — where “more than 500 cinemas re-opened their doors to the public after being closed since late January (though largely no one turned up),” Deadline reported.

But now, the Beijing Film Bureau has ordered all of China’s movie theaters shuttered once again (and with no explanation as to why though it probably has to do with the same reason they closed all of its 70,000 theaters back in January).

Meanwhile, smaller theaters like The Belcourt, Nashville’s nearly century-old nonprofit film center, have had to make forays into the digital dominion of streaming to keep it’s audience and culture alive. Its Living Room Film Club convenes “gatherings” of film fans in their homes to discuss films screened on the Criterion Channel. They even cut a deal with the streamer to discount their members.

The Big Picture

Perhaps this is the model of cinema’s future evolution as a collective experience. Sure, it’s not dissimilar from what was once called “appointment TV” and its subsequent Monday morning watercooler discussions. But it is “cinema” of a sort. And frankly, the prospect of sharing a room full of recirculated air with tens, if not hundreds of strangers, seems so passé now. (I shouldn’t quibble about theater air quality — in the 80s, I used to work at a theater that still had a smoking section and bummed Gauloises while I made notes for what became The Late Projectionist.) That said, even if one takes precautions (like forgoing popcorn to wear an N95 mask), it’s difficult to imagine comfortably losing oneself in a film when every cleared throat could be a cornucopia of contagion.

I’ll stay home and experiment, like The Belcourt, with new/old means of collective viewing. After all, we’ve successfully ported Happy Hour to Zoom — why not the experience of movie theaters? In fact, the notion of a “movie club” came up during my last online wine time. This is probably how it starts: simply, pockets of cineastes coalescing around what they love. Because cinema is still important, movies are still big, it’s just — to borrow a line from Gloria Swanson — “the pictures that got small.”


Daedalus Howell

Daedalus Howell is the author, most recently, of the novel "Quantum Deadline" and the writer-director of the recently released feature film "Pill Head." He is the editor of The North Bay Bohemian and The Pacific Sun.

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