Will Audiences Return to Movie Theaters? Yes! But It’s Now a Culture War Issue (Column)

Last weekend, the season finale of “Saturday Night Live” featured a satirical promotional spot for AMC Theatres that became a delectable skewering of what’s left of the megaplex experience. It featured Vin Diesel, played by Beck Bennett with a SoCal-by-way-of-Brooklyn stupido Toretto growl (“It’s been a while. For the past year, the roads have been a little empty…”), hawking the latest “Fast and Furious” film by welcoming everyone back to that thing we know and love and have all missed so much…“the moo-vies.”

For three minutes, Diesel waxed nostalgic about the moo-vies, talking wistfully about the “the carpet, the cup holders…the eight-dollar bottle of water…the butter machine that shoots out something that doesn’t look like butter…the Aerosmith arcade game, the garbage that has a hole that’s a little too small to put your garbage in…the little trivia game on screen…the cardboard cutouts.” The complaints about megaplexes are, of course, old news (and maybe it takes Vin Diesel to say he misses the most awful aspects of them). But what I found ticklishly perfect about the sketch is how it captured not just the cliché gripes but the synthetic totality of the plex environment, a thing that’s not going to be remedied anytime soon. By the end of the sketch, even Vin, informed by an usher that he had to wear a mask, had decided to go watch a movie at home (“It’s amazing”).

“SNL,” when it’s good, can still touch the zeitgeist, and while the show’s send-up of Diesel was very funny, the thing that stayed with me and sent me back to watch that sketch again (I’ve seen it four times) is that it caught how thoroughly any vestige of romance has leaked out of American movie-theater culture. By making Diesel the idiot galoot a spokesman for the moo-vies, the sketch basically said: We’re going back to theaters now, but who would be thick enough to actually defend the experience? The sketch posited the moo-vies as a ritual habit for chucklehead losers.

As someone who still talks up the primal lure of going to the movies, I took that a little personally. And what’s now clear is that the way this is going to play out, over the next year and maybe the next decade, already has the overheated dimension of a culture war. To go or not to go? To believe in the primacy of the communal, cathartic big-screen experience or to see it as a stodgy, unhip relic? No one thought this way about the movie theater versus VHS or DVD; the industry wasted no time transforming those technologies into ancillary markets that helped keep movies afloat. But streaming has changed the chemistry. The two radically different ways of experiencing filmed dramatic entertainment (theater vs. home) will now be competing as never before, and in some ways it’s a battle of cachet. For the moment, the TV medium has won the cool contest.

That’s why the Memorial Day box office returns felt not just like an indicator, but an early salvo of that war. The $48 million taken in by “A Quiet Place Part II” over three days (counting Monday, the tally is $57 million), while it didn’t surpass the $50 million made by the original “A Quiet Place” in 2018, is an extraordinary triumph given that we still have one foot stuck in the year of the pandemic. Yes, more theaters are open than not. But considering how new this all is, how nervous a lot of people are, how many Americans are not vaccinated, and the fact that the reopening of the nation over the next half year will happen like a flower unfolding its petals, slowly and almost imperceptibly, many in the industry have been surprised and stoked by these early financial markers of audience enthusiasm. (The first was the successful performance of “Godzilla vs. Kong.”)

“Cruella,” which opened simultaneously in theaters and on Disney Plus, generated its own solid numbers ($26.5 million through Monday), and if I can indulge my own perverse bit of nostalgia, the performance of these two films so echoes the experience I’ve had over decades of watching the box office that it’s almost uncanny. As someone who had mixed feelings about the first “A Quiet Place” (I thought it was fun at times but so showy in its absence of logic that it verged, at moments, on being a hoot), the new one, to me, was just a draggy and overly obvious splindly-monster-with-jaws movie. Whereas “Cruella,” which reimagines Cruella de Vil in a comic-book-villain origin story crossed with a ’70s London-punk-fashion rock-opera version of “The Devil Wears Prada” (with divine performances from both Emmas), is a socko entertainment that should not have been given away on Disney Plus. That it will make less than half of what “A Quiet Place Part II” does reminded me of all the weekends I’ve seen smart commercial movies I dug get trounced by heavier-treading blockbuster mediocrities. Yet an era that’s as anxious and disruptive as ours can make you wistful even for the old corruptions of taste. I’m not a “Quiet Place II” fan, but its popularity in theaters is a buzzing sign of life.

Did everyone in Hollywood cheer the weekend box office? You’d assume the answer would be yes. But that would be naïve. I can think of the heads of several streaming companies who might, in fact, be wishing for the rapid dwindling of theatrical. They’re part of this war, and it’s not merely a war of numbers; it’s a war of perception — a war over whether the key art form of the 20th century will remain the key art form of the 21st century. It’s become trendy to say that that ship has sailed, that the battle is already over, and that the movies have lost. (One way of saying that: that movie theaters are a chintzy experience for chuckleheads.) It’s become trendy to say that we’re now going to watch movies turn into the equivalent of theater, books, of something else that’s still vital but less culturally dominant.

Maybe so. But pop culture is never predictable. Before “The Sopranos,” who would have foreseen the television revolution? Maybe what we need now is another movie revolution, a return to the idea that they can be the lifeblood. Streaming may siphon off viewers, but the numbers this weekend told a striking story, one that was not foregone. Those numbers said: The love is still out there. Right next to the cup holders and the butter machine. Maybe it’s time to put in some real butter.

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