Jennifer Page jokes that four months in, this decade is already the worst of her life.
A server at a nearby resort, she’s out of work due to the pandemic. After someone tested positive at her mother’s nursing home, Page moved her into a room off the dining room. Two weeks ago, her father died. The day after his memorial, she and her family went for a walk, and her 5-year-old daughter, Roxa, asked for something coveted by children for more than a century.
“She was just like, ‘Mama, when this is over, can we go to the movies?’” recalled Page, 36, of Buffalo. “She went through the whole process of going to the movies. She said, ‘We can get popcorn and each have our own drink and each get a candy.’”
The coronavirus pandemic is forcing Americans to journey through hardship without some of the reliable comforts of hard times. One of them is the movies. For more than a century, movie theaters have been a refuge, a communal escape, a place for popcorn-chomping-dreaming-with-your-eyes-open transportation away from everything else.
A world without movie theaters, like the one we’re temporarily inhabiting, has long been foretold. It’s been predicted with every major technological advancement in media, and especially since the advent of streaming. Cinemas, so inconveniently located outside the home, are a dinosaur, analysts have said — one that's on its way out.
Now, we’re getting a glimpse of life without movie theaters. Most see this as an opening for streaming services, hastening their expected takeover. But it has also brought a renewed appreciation for the pleasures of going to the movies and clarified their unique role in social life. Isolation has only illuminated the power of sitting together in the dark.
“It’s one of those things you can’t really appreciate something until it’s taken away from you,” says John Bell, president of the Tampa Theatre, a 1920s-era movie palace. “This has certainly accelerated a dystopian future look at what the landscape could look like. But I just innately believe that humans are social creatures and, ultimately, they will want to gather again. Streaming is great, it’s convenient. But it’s just not the same.”
Nearly a month of shelter-in-place orders have forced some to hanker for the sticky floors of cinemas like never before. Sure, those people texting a few seats over were always a nuisance and the films weren’t always so great. But peruse social media lists of “What I’m going to do when this is over” and you will see countless cravings for the big screen and a tub of popcorn.
Being holed up at home has, for some, made the difference between streaming and moviegoing especially acute. Neither “Tiger King” nor the bite-sized “movies in chapters” of Quibi fill the loss of a night out at the movies. Gary Walker, a 22-year-old in San Jose, California, who’s studying film at San Francisco State University, has been filling his time watching documentaries on Netflix and series on Disney Plus. But it doesn’t do the trick.
“I can’t wait to go back,” says Walker. “I’m just a person who really likes the social experience of going to the movies, not sitting at home watching a movie by myself. Don’t get me wrong — I like doing that, too. But it’s really different sitting in a theater with other people.”
How Coronavirus Has Grown in Each State — in 1 Chart
New York has quickly become the epicenter of the American coronavirus outbreak. This chart shows the cumulative number of cases per state by number of days since the 10th case.
Source: Johns Hopkins University
Credit: Amy O’Kruk/NBC
Theaters nationwide have shuttered indefinitely due to the pandemic, leaving about a dozen still open. Most are drive-ins, which have seen a sudden resurgence after a decades-long slide. Chains have furloughed or laid off employees, many of whom are part-time or hourly workers.
The shutdown will almost certainly lead to the permanent closure of some cinemas. Analysts say that AMC Entertainment, which presides over the nation’s largest chain, is on the cusp of bankruptcy. To weather the storm, theater owners -- like many other businesses -- have sought federal aid through the coronavirus stimulus package.
The earliest most theaters are hoping to reopen is June. All major releases have been postponed up until mid-July.
“The ability, when this is done, to go out and enjoy something entertaining and affordable with your family and friends is going to be hugely important to the cultural and psychological fabric of the country,” says John Fithian, president of the National Organization of Theater Owners. “We want to do that," he says. "But we still need to be viable.”
Moviegoing has been waning for two decades, a decline masked by higher ticket prices. Last year, domestic ticket sales amassed $11.4 billion. That revenue is a big reason why all but a handful of the largest upcoming productions have postponed theatrical release rather than head to streaming. The big money is still at the box office.
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No one expects, whenever theaters do reopen, that masses will stream through the doors. Distancing protocols could still be kept in place, at least at first. So long as there isn’t a vaccine for COVID-19, some will be hesitant to attend crowded indoor events. Last month the analytics company EDO polled moviegoers and found 70% said they were likely to return to cinemas. Some 45% said they would wait a few weeks; 11% said they’d wait months.
Theaters shuttered during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, but in a more patchwork fashion. The establishment of the studio system followed in the 1920s, a period recounted by Hollywood historian William Mann in “Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood.” Mann believes this pandemic will likewise reshape the movie business.
“If out of this comes a renewed appreciation for going back to some glamour, maybe, in the movies, movie theaters will find their way,” says Mann. “Movie theater chains might be wise to come out of this with a whole new way of, ‘Hey, look at all we have to offer. We can make this experience really special.’”
As the pandemic continues, a larger streaming ecosystem is growing, too. Viewership is soaring. Viewing parties, a digital facsimile of communal moviegoing, are increasing. Some theaters have even themselves embraced streaming as a band-aid and set up virtual screenings online.
But none of those options — all of which come with a “pause” button — provide what many right now could use most: an escape.