It was a late summer evening in 2019 when desperate to get out of the apartment (if only I knew), I booked tickets to see IT: Chapter Two at Yorkdale Mall Cineplex, the only theatre nearby with showings that evening. As I made my way to our aisle seats, I knew I was in for bad news. The audience was comprised of mostly teenagers or families, tired from a day out at the mall, looking to kick back like they were in their own living room. As the lights dimmed and the movie started, my fears were quickly confirmed. Immediately, people started walking up and down the stairs to my left; the couple to the right never stopped their conversation throughout the runtime. I could barely hear anything over the crunching sounds of the guy behind me chewing popcorn with his mouth wide open, and couldn’t focus because of the glaring blue light of the cellphone screen of the teenage girl in front of me recording the opening on her phone, all for The Gram. It was, without question, the single worst film-going experience of my life.
But I would give anything for that again right now.
I’ve always loved film but growing up in a rural town in Northern England meant my options were limited. The nearest theatre was a 30-minute bus ride and its one screen was taken up by whatever film was still making money—they showed the final Lord of the Rings film twice a day, for five months straight. So I’d travel an extra hour on the bus to a city with a multiplex. When I finally moved out, it was to a city with a plethora of screening options, from multiplexes to a small independent, where I worked for five years, catching screenings on my days off or in between shifts. My last move brought me to Toronto, where I was met with a whole host of independents, multiplexes, and film festivals.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve watched a lot of movies at home too. My teenage cinema trips would always end with a trawl through the HMV stacks. And living in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do if you weren’t into huffing glue, I spent a lot of time watching DVDs when I probably should have been studying. Over the years my 2,000-DVD strong collection has disappeared only to be replaced with countless streaming services and a monthly dent in my bank account.
This is all to say that, I fucking love watching films and I watch a lot of them. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried. After I saw Blue is the Warmest Colour, I went into a week-long funk. I’ve found ways to give life meaning and made lifelong friends through these shared experiences. Gathering for a beer after and dissecting scene by scene. In the same way other people love sports or live music, there is nothing more exciting to me than the dimming of lights and the electric hush that (should) fall over an audience.
Believe me when I tell you, it truly breaks my heart to see cinemas sitting empty and forgotten, or iconic landmarks shutting shop for good; constantly reminds me of the joy I’ve found in these buildings and those like them.
I did answer Christopher Nolan’s call to action, putting on real clothes along with my mask to attend an actual screening of Tenet. I really wanted to come away feeling elated, after getting lost in its giddy visuals and plot. But I came away feeling hollow. This may have had something to do with the film itself (a topic for another time but where were the emotional stakes, Chris?), but would my opinion have been different if I’d been surrounded by people wanting to feel the same thing I did? I think yes.
This, of course, is of no fault of cinemas or their staff. They were doing the very best they could, and I’ve been that person, cleaning up the popcorn spills, candy wrappers and lonesome single socks (I wish I was joking), throw in a pandemic and it’s a waking nightmare. Cinemas, like all businesses, are only as good as the services they offer. With no services to offer, they’re dead in the water. And while we’ve all been guilty of complaining about how expensive cinema trips can be, they are barely keeping their head about the water financially, especially indies. On most new releases, especially the bigger ones, the theatre only sees a fraction of each ticket sold, sometimes as little as 10% so while drinks and snacks may be expensive, that’s literally the only way they can make money (honestly, if you have the means to support your local independent, through donations or buying snacks to eat at home, please. They will appreciate it.)
This coupled with the AMC vs. Universal blowout and Warner Brothers’ decision to premier their 2021 releases on HBO Max the same day as theatres mean the release window could shrink rapidly or become non-existent. Only Disney seems committed to having actual cinema experiences after experimenting with Premier Access on Disney+, releasing a sizzle reel for its upcoming superhero slate from now until we’re all dead.
And I get it, we’ve all been consuming content in our sweatpants, on our couches for the past year (as an introvert, I felt like I’d been training for this all my life). Whatever weak sauce passed for my social skills has been replaced with a general sense of unease towards anyone I meet, even if I’ve known them for years. The idea of getting on a crowded subway train, to ride to work in an office all day fills me with an existential dread, not because I’m afraid of getting sick but because I have gotten so damned used to my own company.
But we will get through this pandemic. And whilst we all want things to go back to normal it’ll be a while before this is all a distant memory. As vaccines start pumping through our veins, things will start to reopen, and that’s scary. But when, and ONLY when, you feel comfortable, please go outside. Go back to the things you love. Whether it’s film, live music, sport, sitting in a park with a book, whatever! You go do you and do it as often as you can because now we actually know what it’s like to lose these things literally overnight.
And please, let me go back to rolling my eyes at teenagers violating copyright for The Gram.