Among many other things, the coronavirus pandemic nearly changed the definition of what movies are. With movie theaters closed, and moviegoers skittish about going once they reopened, movie watchers have been introduced over the last year to terms like "Virtual Cinema," "Premium VOD," “Disney+ Premier Access," and "innovative, hybrid distribution model." Almost all the films at this year’s Academy Awards (set for Sunday, April 25) never opened in theaters, or had extremely limited theatrical releases.
I went to an early screening of Kelly Reichardt's First Cow on March 12, 2020, and got the word on the way home that Tom Hanks had tested positive for coronavirus, and the NBA season had been suspended. After another screening the following morning of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, I wouldn't see another movie in a traditional theater—with a single exception—for nearly a year.
Couch, drive-in, stadium
In the meantime, there were lots of workarounds. I mostly saw movies on my couch, but also at drive-ins and, on one occasion, outdoors at Lincoln Financial Field (the premiere of Totally Under Control, a documentary executive produced by Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie.) My one movie theater trip of the second half of 2020 was for Christopher Nolan's Tenet, which the director insisted had to open in theaters. This was a press screening, with three people, in a giant auditorium.
But now, with vaccinations underway, something like movie theater normalcy is close at hand. The AMC Dine-In Fashion District 8, which opened in late 2019 and found itself shuttered a few months later, is back, while the Ritz Five has been open for a while. Ritz East, around the corner, remains closed, and there's no announced return date for the Philadelphia Film Society's venues, the Philadelphia Film Center and the Roxy. Two more theaters, the Ritz at the Bourse and Riverview, won’t be reopening at all.
Back to Bryn Mawr
On April 9, the Bryn Mawr Film Institute ended its year-long public screening hiatus, reopening with four films that are nominated for this year's Oscars: Nomadland, The Father, Minari, and Judas and the Black Messiah. I was there for opening day, where masks were required and seats were separated, among other safety precautions.
The Film Institute, located on Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr, ran a virtual cinema called "Theater 5" for the last year, and continues to have some films and other programming available virtually, including this year's Oscar-nominated short film program.
"It's nice to be back here, in this space," Samuel Scott, BMFI's executive director, said in an interview in one of the institute's auditoriums, just prior to showtime. "Although we've had private rentals since February—and those have been going great—it's nice to be open to the public again."
Those private rentals, which start at $250, are available for family groups of up to 15 people. As the theater is only open to the public on weekends for now, the private showings have been taking place during the week. And while public screenings require tickets to be purchased in advance, the theater is serving popcorn.
Scott also explained why BMFI didn't open until some time after it was first legally allowed to.
"We've actually been permitted to open for months, in theory. But as you see around town, very few people took advantage of that," Scott said. “[First], because it was ridiculously limited capacity, 10 percent, really, though now it's gone up to 25 percent. The building is actually 75 percent, but since it's a movie, the state looks at those as an event, as an ‘indoor event,’ and they say that indoor events have to be limited.”
"So that's why we made the decision not to open [yet], as most theaters did—it was too costly,” he continued. “Plus, there were very few films available, so now some of the films are available."
Scott added that the theater will focus on showing Oscar contenders in the early going, but he hopes to reintroduce older repertory titles to BMFI soon.
“The thing I missed most”
Customers at the theater for the initial showing were also excited to be back.
"This is the thing I missed most of all, aside from hugging friends. The only thing I wanted to come back to was coming to the Bryn Mawr," Anne O'Brien of Lansdowne said, on her way in to the first showing of Judas and the Black Messiah. O'Brien said she watched a lot of the Theater 5 movies while the theater was closed, as well as movies on streaming services.
"Fantastic," a woman named Roseanne said of how it felt to return to theaters. She said she mostly watched movies on Netflix and Amazon during the pandemic.
Many questions about the future of filmgoing remain unanswered. Even after vaccinations, will audiences be comfortable in theaters again? Did American movie fans get so conditioned to streaming and video on demand that they'll stick with those, even after it's safe to go back to theaters? We’re likely to get some answers to all those before long.
I've been to two movies in the theater so far this year, one of which, Godzilla vs. Kong, has emerged as the first bonafide hit of 2021. When, and whether, in-person movies return to the way they were remains very much an open question, but there's no doubt that I'm glad they're back.
Image description: A photo of the front façade of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. It’s a brick building of a few stories, with sculptural details in cement. Large blue letters above the cinema marquee spell “Bryn Mawr.” Black-and-white marbled stone panels front the entrance windows and doors.
Image description: A photo of the glassed-in box office inside Bryn Mawr Film Institute. A single staffer is inside wearing a facemask.