Over the past several years, I've made a habit of pointing out how inadequate Philly’s movie-theater scene is, especially since we said goodbye to Ritz at the Bourse earlier this year. And now, of course, our number of screens has dwindled all the way to zero.
For all my complaints about the state of our city's cinemas, I'd really love right now to get back to any one of them.
That flickering light
Yes, there are plenty of entertainment options available during quarantine. There are streaming, VOD, and the various "Virtual Cinema" programs bringing art-house favorites to people's homes while also kicking a few bucks to local theaters. I've even been fortunate enough to keep reviewing movies each week, and even continuing to cohost my movie podcast.
But honestly, it's just not the same.
There's a lot I miss about going to the movies. There are the little things, like the popcorn and the thrills of finding just the right parking spot or catching the train and making it to a theater on time when you didn't think you would. I miss the idiosyncrasies of the local theaters, from the slow escalator upstairs at the Riverview to the Ritz Five's on-again-off-again marquee to the exit sign in the worst possible place at the Roxy.
I miss my film-critic colleagues and other regulars at screenings; I especially miss the discussions we have before the movies and the arguments afterward. I miss the local film festivals, several of which have already been cancelled. And I miss being able to take my kids to big movies that are debuting in theaters and not on Disney+.
A painful loss
But most of all, I miss the movies themselves. There's that thrill of seeing something amazing when you least expected it, the kind of movie I can't wait to go home and start writing about. I even miss bad movies, because, as Roger Ebert showed years ago, the negative reviews can be a lot more fun to write than the positive ones.
For the 15 years that I've been a film critic in this city, knowing that I had a movie to go to has always given me a bright end to the week, no matter how stressful it's been. In one of the most stressful times of our collective experience, it hurts not to have that.
While movie theaters will be back eventually, I imagine it's going to be a while before we see them reopening to a normal scale, even after things have opened up elsewhere in the city and country. Places where large groups of people sit together in an enclosed indoor space may very well go into the "not until there's a vaccine" basket.
On Philly screens
I think back on my favorite moments of a full house engaging in a real way with a great movie—like that first preview screening of Get Out at the Riverview in 2017, or last fall, when the Philadelphia Film Center crowd fell hard for the Philadelphia Film Festival's closing-night film, Rian Johnson's Knives Out, with the director in the house. I expect quite a bit of time will pass before anything like that happens in this town again.
I especially feel for the people at the Lightbox Film Center, which relocated from University City to reopen at UArts at the end of February, only to close again just a few weeks later; and for those behind CinéSPEAK, which announced plans in February to open a 75-seat "microcinema" on Baltimore Avenue in West Philly, and have now pushed those back to the fall.
The only certainty
The arrival of the AMC Dine-In 8 last November ended Center City's two-decade multiplex drought, only for the theater to shutter less than five months later. Reports early in the quarantine had AMC looking at possible bankruptcy, followed a few weeks later by word that Amazon was considering buying the chain. All we can be certain about is uncertainty.
I'm not privy to details about the financial solvency of the other companies operating in the movie-exhibition space, but the struggles of the industry in general don't seem to bode particularly well for national chains like Alamo Drafthouse, iPic, or ArcLight to make a move into Philly anytime soon.
We don't know what the movie-theater landscape will look like in the future, and how the experience of going to the movies in Philadelphia will be different from what it's long been. But I do know whenever that happens, I'll be thankful to be back.