By Gary D. Rhodes.
Movie theaters must do more work to ensure that we are seeing unique content, not films that are already streaming or will be within a few weeks. And this means being clever, because movie theaters can show far more than just movies. (Thank you, Taylor Swift!)”
Movie theaters need us, badly, more than ever. And we need them, every bit as much, if not more so.
The year 2023 was horrible for Hollywood, and not just because of union strikes. The term “blockbuster” originally meant a type of bomb in World War II. It has again in recent months, over and over again thanks to a series box-office flops.
That hurts Tinseltown, which decides what films to produce, and it also hurts our beloved movie theaters, which don’t have a direct say in what projects get made.
Aquaman sank, and The Marvels weren’t marvelous. But it wasn’t just the superheroes. Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning was dead on arrival. Elementals didn’t compound into success. The Expend4bles were just that, along with other big names, from Indiana Jones to Napoleon Bonaparte.
The audience suffered. So too the movie theater. And like the rest of us, movie theaters are still reeling from COVID-19.
Hundreds of theaters closed because of the pandemic. Thousands of screens darkened. A plague upon us. It hurt their bottom line and our eyeline.
Americans have suffered mightily in recent times, from political chaos and angry division to a new infection, the loneliness crisis.
Nowhere else can we be simultaneously in private while also still being in public. The darkness of the auditorium provides that wonderful paradox, where we can joke quietly with a friend or kiss a partner while never meeting or even seeing the faces of the rest of the audience.”
Movie theaters might not be our salvation, or our only solution, but they’re certainly one of many possible answers.
It isn’t just that they’ve been a cultural institution for over a century. They’ve helped us through two world wars, depressions and recessions, ups and downs.
They are a social necessity. They are the perfect place for us to go and forget our troubles for two hours (or three, if great names like Scorsese roll on the credits).
Nowhere else can we be simultaneously in private while also still being in public. The darkness of the auditorium provides that wonderful paradox, where we can joke quietly with a friend or kiss a partner while never meeting or even seeing the faces of the rest of the audience. But we’re still with them, especially when we all laugh at the same time, or jump from fear, or hold our collective breaths in suspense.
Maybe this is why generations past often called them “movie houses.” They were like home, while also being “public houses,” even if usually without spirits, save for those in ghost movies.
Remember the days of seeing the big screen as a child, downing soda pop while watching a Jedi wield a lightsaber? Background music swells. Our cheeks tingle. That was the force of the Force.
How many generations of teenagers have happily kissed in the dark, ignoring as much of the movie as they could? (As one pop song advised in 1919, “Take Your Girlie to the Movies If You Can’t Make Love at Home.”)
Movie theaters have always been about far more than the film flickering onscreen. Let’s all smooch. Let’s all hang with our pals. And by all means, let’s all go to the lobby to get ourselves a treat.
But it isn’t as easy as it used to be. The average price of a movie ticket is now over ten bucks. Popcorn requires real folding money these days. And neither Mike nor Ike come cheap. This isn’t going to change.
And we do need a greater variety of films at the theater, including those that will appeal to the broader public, not just its younger members.
That isn’t the only problem movie theaters have, alas. Too often people are deciding to stream films at home. (Lest there’s any doubt, ScarJo was quite right to be mad that Black Widow appeared so quickly on a service that might now be called Disney Minus.)
And then there’s the cell phone viewing. Squint at the tiny screen. Strain to hear the sound design. No wonder we’re suffering from loneliness.
Nevertheless, movie theaters shouldn’t blame technological competition. They survived the likes of television and home video.
Nor should they blame the pandemic. They survived the 1918 influenza epidemic as well as everything from scarlet fever to polio.
Nor should they blame Hollywood. They’ve always survived bad film grosses, especially from the late forties through the late sixties.
Movie theaters must save themselves, for the better good of us all, just like they have in the past.
AMC gave away our favorite movie treat on National Popcorn Day. Nice, truly, but no amount of butter-substitute for 24 hours will solve the problem this year-wide problem.”
AMC provides a useful example, and not just because they’re the largest chain in the world.
Based in Kansas, the original company is over a century old. Its longtime boss Stan Durwood changed the name to AMC in the late sixties, the acronym standing for American Multi-Cinema. An unsung hero of film history, he practically invented the multiplex. And the cupholder.
“Our goal,” Durwood proclaimed, “is to say to the consumer, ‘We love ya. We really appreciate your business. We want to make your stay pleasant and fun.”
These days, sadly, AMC might be best known for wrongly ejecting an African-American patron at an Arizona theater in 2021. (He’s now suing and hopefully will see justice).
If you’ve forgotten that incident, never fear to fear AMC again. In December 2023, one of their locations in North Carolina threw out another African-American who had paid for his ticket, a civil rights leader, the Reverend William Barber, just because he was using his own special chair in the disabled section, one that he requires due to his arthritis.
Movie theater chains need to stop being stupid and seemingly racist. Rather than harass us, they need to emphasize protecting us. Hiring so few staff at each location might be an economic necessity, but new methods, even if technological rather than biological, are needed to keep theaters safe, in the lobby and in the darkness, not just to prevent horrors like the Aurora, Colorado mass shooting of 2012, but also to deal with disruptive audience members of all types.
Movie theaters must also do more work to ensure that we are seeing unique content, not films that are already streaming or will be within a few weeks. And this means being clever, because movie theaters can show far more than just movies. (Thank you, Taylor Swift!)
Consider screening additional unique content, like a short subject before the feature film. Even if we don’t usually want to watch three hour films, we might love seeing a new, ten-minute cartoon.
This isn’t the time to think small. AMC gave away our favorite movie treat on National Popcorn Day. Nice, truly, but no amount of butter-substitute for 24 hours will solve the problem this year-wide problem.
Most of all, do a better job of selling yourselves. The big screen, the surround sound, and the overall experience: remind everyone of why we love you. You are magical, truly, at least when you aren’t making mistakes.
We love you, movie theaters, and we need you, badly. But we don’t want to be taken for granted. Time for you to love us back, and in 2024 that means you will have to work to win us back.
Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D., filmmaker, poet and Full Professor of Media Production at Oklahoma Baptist University, is the author of the forthcoming Vampires in Silent Cinema (Edinburgh University Press, January 2024), Becoming Dracula – Vols. 1 and 2 (with William M. [Bill] Kaffenberger, BearManor Media), Consuming Images: Film Art and the American Television Commercial (co-authored with Robert Singer, Edinburgh University Press, 2020), Emerald Illusions: The Irish in Early American Cinema (IAP, 2012), The Perils of Moviegoing in America (Bloomsbury, 2012) and The Birth of the American Horror Film (Edinburgh University Press, 2018), as well as the editor of such anthologies as The Films of Joseph H. Lewis (Wayne State University Press, 2012) and The Films of Budd Boetticher (Edinburgh University Press, 2017). Rhodes is also the writer-director of such documentary films as Lugosi: Hollywood’s Dracula (1997) and Banned in Oklahoma (2004).