Obviously, the COVID-19 crisis has caused a lot of problems for theater chains across the country who were forced to shut down their screens indefinitely due to social distancing guidelines. AMC Theatres, America’s biggest cinema chain, is no exception. In fact, they seem to be struggling more than most, as many reports have stated recently that they’re quickly approaching bankruptcy. First, I want to make it clear that I have no idea what I’m talking about from an economic standpoint. I don’t really have any clue what the effect of declaring bankruptcy will be for AMC. I know that I feel bad for the many people who are losing their jobs, I know that this is especially upsetting because my two favorite theaters near me are AMC’s, and I know that I’m worried about the future of moviegoing in general. But from a business perspective, I don’t know shit. I thought it was important that I make that apparent at the start.
I was worried about the effect that this lockdown would have on the future of cinemas, and the film industry in general, long before I heard about AMC’s current position. As the national quarantine started to take place, many studios made their recently released films available on VOD much earlier than planned. Some of these films like Bloodshot and The Hunt were only in theaters for one week before cinemas were shut down. They were then immediately made available on VOD. Also, just this past week Dreamworks and Universal made their film, Trolls World Tour, available online without it ever appearing in theaters. For the most part, I thought it was a great choice by studios to make their films available online in order to give people entertainment during this very strange and scary time in the world. Also, I enjoyed the fact that I was able to see smaller films I didn’t get a chance to see in theaters like the terrific Never Rarely Sometimes Always. But I’ll admit, there was a part of me that was worried about the effect this would have on theaters going forward, I didn’t want VOD releases for new movies to become the norm once the lockdown ended. The reasoning behind this worry is the simple fact that I love going to the movie theater. In fact, one of the first blogs I ever posted on this site was an explanation of why I still feel movie theaters are important, which can be read here. Essentially, I feel that sitting in a theater is undoubtably the premier way to view a film. I believe that to be true for all films, from quiet independent dramas with tiny budgets all the way to the biggest and most expensive franchise films of the year. The act of watching a movie at home will just never be as immersive as watching it in a movie theater.
I understand that many people disagree with my take on theaters. They have no problem with home viewings and actually welcome a world in which all new releases are made available immediately on VOD. The declining annual box office numbers of the past few years reflect that idea. But for me, I can’t wait until movie theaters reopen and I hope that the industry does not drastically shift as a result of this current lockdown. I understand the convenience of home viewings and am actually grateful to companies like Netflix and Amazon for funding a lot of incredible movies over the past few years. But, I am still disheartened by the idea that one day—possibly soon—the main way to view a new release may not be in a movie theater.
What I’m really trying to say is I miss going to the movie theater. I miss it just as much as I miss live sports. Is it depressing that, instead of like.. seeing friends, movies and sports are the first two things that come to my mind when I think about what I miss from regular life? Possibly, but the heart wants what the heart wants.
Thinking about how much I miss movie theaters got me reminiscing about some of my most memorable recent theater experiences. Unfortunately, there just weren’t a ton of great films to see in theaters in the first two and a half months of 2020, in which theaters were actually open. So instead, I’m going to share my most noteworthy theater experiences of 2019. I’ve divided them into three categories: The Best, The Worst, and The Strangest.
Avengers: Endgame – This was an obvious choice. I saw the 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe on opening night. I walked out of the theater sometime after 1:30 in the morning absolutely electrified by what I just had just seen. These movies have been a part of my life since I was 12 years old, and I refuse to apologize for how much I enjoyed Endgame. There is nothing better than seeing a highly anticipated film on opening night surrounded by a crowd of diehard fans, as long as the movie is actually good (@The Rise of Skywalker).
Knives Out – Rian Johnson’s whodunnit was one of the most fun theater experiences of the past year. Being taken on this ride and watching this mystery unfold as past of a collective audience was an absolutely incredible sensation. I was also extremely happy that this film was as successful as it ultimately turned out to be. It deserved to be seen. Specifically, it deserved to be seen in a theater, and I’m thrilled so many people made the decision to do so.
Waves – Trey Edward Shults’ Waves was a much different theater experience than Knives Out or Avengers: Endgame. Due to the nature of this story, I wouldn’t exactly call this experience “fun.” But, this was one of the most aesthetically stunning and enthralling films I have ever seen in a theater. The colors, the camera movements, the sound mixing, and the music all came together to create a film that overloaded the senses, in the best way possible. I remember seeing this film on a rainy day after work, and walking out thinking I had just seen something that I’ve never seen before.
Uncut Gems – The viewing experience of Uncut Gems was not that dissimilar to Waves. The Safdie brothers, who are amongst my favorite directors working today, created one of the most anxiety-inducing and captivating films I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. This is a perfect example of a film that was made to be seen in a theater, even if it doesn’t seem like that based on its plot. I look forward to the Safdie brothers mesmerizing me again with their future films, which I will of course be seeing in a cinema.
Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood – I’ll never forget the first time I saw Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece in the theater. This 161 minute tour de force was one of my three favorite films of this past year. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Tarantino may love movie theaters more than any man in the world. Therefore, it’s obvious that his films have always looked incredible on the big screen throughout his career. The impeccable directing, the attention-to-detail, and the impressive visual style of OUATIH were all amplified by viewing it in a theater.
Booksmart & Good Boys – I had to give a quick shoutout to my two favorite comedies from last year. There’s nothing quite like seeing a great comedy film in a packed crowd. Both Booksmart and Good Boys were two of the most fun and rewarding theater experiences I’ve had in a long time.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu – Fortunately, 2019 was a great year for movies so I didn’t actually have a ton of bad theater experiences. That being said, Pokémon Detective Pikachu was a bit of a rough one. Overall, this film wasn’t terrible but I’m pretty sure I saw it in the theater by myself, on a weekday, while I was unemployed. How can I describe the sensation that comes with being an unemployed 22 year old sitting in a PG film starring a Ryan Reynolds voiced Pikachu? It’s just… it’s not what you want.
I tried to find some other contenders for this category but honestly most of the worst movies I saw last year were Netflix films. Yesterday was a contender based on the quality of the film, but at least that theater experience came with Beatles songs being played on movie theater speakers every 20 minutes or so. I’ll share my worst film related decision of 2019 to make up for the fact that I can’t come up with another particularly bad theater experience though. The decision to watch Noelle on Disney Plus was, without a doubt, the worst movie decision I made this past year. I don’t know how you can screw up a Christmas movie starring Bill Hader and Anna Kendrick but Disney managed to do it. Don’t watch that movie.
Little Women – First let me say, Little Women was one of my favorite films of 2019. I absolutely love this film. But, the reason it falls into The Strangest category is because the first time I saw this film in theaters, (Yes, I saw it multiple times in theaters. Shoutout to the greatest living human, Greta Gerwig.) I was literally the only male in a theater which had not one empty seat. That’s right, it was me and just hoards of mother-daughter teams and squads filled with middle aged women. And guess what? We had a delightful fucking time courtesy of the aforementioned Greta Gerwig, as well as Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalet, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Alexandre Desplat, and all the other great people that contributed to this film.
1917 – 1917 was probably the best theater experience of the year for a lot of people. I was certainly awed by the work of Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins, they made this film one of the most impressive feats of cinema I have ever seen on the big screen. But, there was one thing about this theater experience that made it one my strangest of the year. Sometimes you just sit next to the wrong people in the theater. This was the case for me when I first saw 1917. I sat next to a man who fell asleep during the trailers, snored loudly throughout the first 30 minutes of the film, then woke up, spent some time on his phone, and left before the halfway point of the movie. This man paid a ticket for a film, which he definitely did not pay attention to for more than a total of 10 minutes. I still do not understand it.
Ad Astra – I’m aware that Ad Astra was not one of the biggest films of the year from a box office perspective so I’ll take a brief moment to explain what it is about. James Gray’s film is about an astronaut, played by Brad Pitt, who embarks on a mission that takes him across our solar system, in order to uncover the truth about his missing father and a doomed expedition that took place 30 years in the past. Sounds fun, right? Everyone loves a good space movie. Here’s the thing though, this is not Apollo 13 and it’s certainly not Armageddon. It is a slow and dense movie that explores the emotional intricacies of father-son relationships, the evolution of mankind, the importance of human connection and community, and the feeling of isolation and loneliness. Let me get one thing straight, it is a great film but it is important that you understand it is also one that dares us to look inward and examine the consequences of the human condition. It’s also mostly narrated by, and focused on, a monotoned and expressionless Brad Pitt. So, why am I explaining this film in such great detail? Why was it such a strange theater experience? Well, imagine viewing the film I just described—a dense existential work of art that examines deeply spiritual questions about human life, starring an incredibly lonely main character who rarely displays emotion—in a completely empty theater. It was a sensation I had never felt before. I was alone viewing this incredibly brilliant, yet deeply complex, film in the middle of a very large theater, without one other person. If you’ve seen the film, you can truly understand what this must have been like. All joking aside, I think I walked out of that theater a different person from the one who walked in. It was an interesting time.