With movies, as with marriages, it’s always best to dwell on the best moments: Cringing at Get Out, convulsing at Borat, wiping tears at A Dog’s Journey. As a confirmed ticket buyer, I’ll never forget seeing Parasite with a mostly Korean audience, hearing their laughs at jokes I’d missed.
But with 2020 almost behind us (gratefully), journalists are supposed to reflect on the “big trends” and mine is one of regret: I have concluded that I don’t miss movie theaters anymore. I am resigned to the fact that the plexes and the Landmark Theaters have become part of my past.
That admission is a relief in some ways, but also a source of alarm. The movie theater has always represented a cool, dark escape, and also a mini-island of cultural civility. And if it disappears, how will “special” movies get made? What will become of those fragments of cinephilia that don’t fit into the streaming machine?
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Hence, I’ve been doing the predictable stuff: Bought myself a 75-inch screen and a terrific sound system and re-designated my den as a media room. My wife has developed a talent for making popcorn. I’ve even resigned myself to bingeing on that mean-spirited narcotic called The Crown.
But I once was the kid who wandered into that stuffy art house theater to discover Fellini, Truffaut or a Brit pic from John Schlesinger. And in my second act I was the stubborn studio maven who coaxed movies like Harold and Maude into production and believed that, after the ’60s, the art of filmmaking would never be the same.
So is my sense of resignation unique to my generation? One third of filmgoers are under the age of 24, so are they ready for a moment of rediscovery? Miles Centrella, for one, thinks so. He’s a 20-year-old Berkeley senior who rented a musty theater in Oakland for a night, then booked Tenet and divided the $150 cost between 20 fellow students. An economics and film major, he admits, “I may be old school, but the group experience to me is irreplaceable.” He would do it again, but California’s new restrictions bar anything with the concept of “group.” Besides, Centrella didn’t much like Tenet.
If things go according to Hollywood’s plan, next summer’s “pandemic bump” should give young filmgoers like Centrella a potential feast of group experience. Having survived pushbacks, the plexes will unload Black Widow, Fast & Furious 9, Top Gun: Maverick, Ghostbusters: Afterlife and a bundle of other wannabe blockbusters. The looming question: Will the newly vaccinated masses come out of hiding? Might the dizzying over-abundance of product reinforce stay-at-home habits?
A further question: Will the specialty circuits shake off the dust and mobilize a renaissance? Mindful of their iffy exhibition prospects, and shifting release windows, the indie production scene has sputtered. The talent has responded accordingly: For actors and creatives, opportunity beckons in the streaming universe, especially that sector focused on the binge business.
Where HBO once boasted of its one-off programming surprises, the present production czar, Casey Bloys, prefers to talk about The Flight Attendant because it’s binge-worthy, and that’s what HBO Max urgently needs. “I want to deploy the culture of putting talent first across the organization,” declares Bloys. Creatively, “deployment” usually entails a different director and writer for each segment, thus refuting the unity of point-of-view offered by the “specialty” feature.
“People change their habits,” as Peter Chernin told the New York Times last week, saying he has some 70 projects in development for buyers including Netflix. Reflecting the spirit of change, the Motion Picture Academy will permit films from the streaming services to skip their theatrical release and still be eligible for Oscars. This ruling will be “temporary,” the Academy insists, while acknowledging that it may be hard to reverse.
Perhaps also temporary will be my present aversion to theaters. Come next summer, with an end to the pandemic, I may find myself abandoning my media room, and my wife’s popcorn. I may even join Miles Centrella and his friends in renting a theater. After all, he is my grandson.
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