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The popcorn problem
Movie theaters are reopening, but I’m not ready to go back
Last week Warner Bros. parent company AT&T announced that Tenet, director Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited new film, had been delayed indefinitely after its release date was pushed back multiple times. The film, which Nolan has insisted be released theatrically—in 70mm projection, IMAX, and other bells and whistles often associated with Nolan films—was awaited as the one that would usher movie theaters back into business.
On Monday, the company said that the latest plan is to open Tenet in "select cities" in the US on Labor Day, while giving it more solid release dates in various other countries, most of which have made more progress in battling coronavirus than we have. Whether that release plan survives contact with reality is very much an open question.
Air and popcorn
I really can't wait to see Tenet. I miss going to the movies terribly. But at the same time, a part of me is thankful for the delay. As much as I miss movie theaters, and as excited as I am to see a new Christopher Nolan movie in all its big-screen splendor, I'm not ready to risk the theatrical experience quite yet—and I don't know when I will be.
Most of us aren't in full quarantine anymore. Businesses in the area have been reopened for weeks or even months, people are going outside again, albeit with masks and social-distancing precautions. We’re not at normal yet, or anywhere close to it, but it’s also not like the shutdown we had in March and April.
But movie theaters are a whole other issue. They are, with the exception of drive-ins, completely indoors. Over the course of a long movie—and Tenet’s running time is said to approach three hours—that's a lot of air recirculating for a long time. Sure, masks can help. But with a mask on, you can't eat popcorn, and when it comes to the business model of movie theaters, concession sales are nearly as important to the bottom line as movie tickets.
AMC, Regal, and PFS
The movie-release delays announced over the last few months, into late 2020 or even 2021, have been based on the same wishful thinking that says there's nothing to worry about when it comes to reopening such crowded indoor locations as bars, schools, and Major League Baseball clubhouses. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, at the movies, there very much is something to worry about. This means a great deal of uncertainty, if not an existential threat, for the movie exhibition business.
The two biggest chains in the US, AMC and Regal, remain closed, with the former engaging in various complex financial machinations to stave off bankruptcy, amid rumors Amazon might buy it. Both chains recently sued in New Jersey for the right to reopen, while their reopening plans have been pushed back nearly as often as Tenet has.
The Philadelphia Film Society launched a successful “Save Our Screens” fundraiser, and also, with less than a week's notice, held a "SummerFest" film festival which consisted mostly of online Q&As related to movies that had already been released. The city's guidance on events with large groups would seem to kibosh the idea of any in-person film festivals happening in 2020.
At the start of July, a couple local movie theaters even reopened. The Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville and the Water Tower Cinema in Montgomeryville are both open for business, showing older movies since there are no newer ones available. I haven’t been to either.
The drive-in revival
Sure, the industry has gotten creative. The last four months have seen a ton of streaming, VOD and “Virtual Cinema” releases. And from Hamilton to Palm Springs to Greyhound to The Vast of Night, some of them have been very good, to the point where 2020 might actually go down as a decent movie year.
Drive-in theaters, whether in traditional or makeshift form, have seen an unlikely revival. FringeArts reimagined its summer movies as Reels on Wheels, taking over an adjacent parking lot for a free drive-in series running on Wednesdays from July 22 through August 5. And an all-drive-in film festival, the Lighthouse Film Festival, was even held on Long Beach Island in June. A great idea, at least until a screening was cancelled after organizers couldn't stop the screen from blowing down.
A few months ago, I might have said that I'd go to that press screening or early showing of Tenet, because I figured by the time it came out, we might have made some progress with containing the virus. But now? I'm not willing to risk it.
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