• Joel Ryan

Why Movie Theaters are More Important Than We Realize



Like many people, the last movie I saw in theaters was over a year ago. It was a matinee showing of Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, which, as we now know, would go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture only a few weeks later.

Going to the movies was, of course, a mainstay of my life as a writer before the pandemic hit and our local leadership implemented statewide lockdowns that closed most, if not all, movie theaters in my home state of California. As a result, many of the shining features of the Golden State have remained closed for over a year and counting.


Theme parks, concerts, sporting events … all closed or, at the very least, severely restricted by statewide lockdowns. And that’s not including the countless schools, churches, restaurants, gyms, and small businesses that were also closed and are still struggling to return to full capacity.


Yes, most people can still order takeout from their favorite restaurant, attend virtual classes, and watch a Sunday morning church service, Lakers’ game, or movie online, but there’s something special and dare I say essential about public gatherings and places where people can sit down, interact, talk, and share something together.


As humans, we should venture out, leave our phones at home, get some sun, and enjoy life with others, whether they are part of our immediate social circle or not.


The movie theater has been an important venue for this kind social interaction and has been for quite some time.


Of course, theaters aren't the only places where we go to find community or unwind after a long week. Some people go for a run or to the gym. Others may choose to go out to dinner or for ice cream. People of faith gather with fellow believers to worship and encourage each other in their local synagogue, church, or mosque. It seems those activities have become tougher to experience these days too.

I recognize that there is a massive difference between Christians gathering together (church) and a family going out to the movies or a sporting event. I'm certainly not equating the two. Both are important in their own way; and having in person church services closed has arguably done more damage to our society than we should have ever allowed to accept.


Regardless of anybody’s best intentions or motives sustaining some of the stricter measures we’ve seen over the last year, we have to acknowledge and be willing to debate the profound emotional, mental, and even spiritual side effects of the prolonged absence of social interaction, live entertainment, and public gatherings.


That isn’t a political statement either. It’s simply an observation of what happens when people aren’t able (or even allowed) to interact and have meaningful face-to-face conversations with friends, coworkers, neighbors, and strangers.


Some may be quick to categorize sports, going to the movies, or eating out as “non-essential” or frivolous forms of entertainment. I disagree.

There is a deeply spiritual and socially destabilizing impact to isolating people and breaking apart those places that actually foster community and conversation.

How and how often we interact with others outside of our homes contributes to the health of the individual and the health of our society.


Entertainment and human interaction play an enormous role in the creation, exportation, and preservation of culture. It’s not just what about what we enjoy as individuals, it’s also about what we share together.


When we no longer believe we have anything in common with our neighbors because we no longer have opportunities to make those discoveries, we lose awareness of what does unite us.


There’s something remarkable about being invested in a playoff game in an arena full of like-minded, screaming fans, or being in a movie theater and cheering at the same scene with total strangers, or singing along to Pirates of the Caribbean on a boat with people we don’t know.


In those moments, the things that divide and separate us fade away… if only for a moment.


We may hold different political, personal, or religious views, but when we cheer for the same team or laugh at the same scene in a movie, we begin to identify the things we do have in common. We recognize that, yes, there are people out there like us (or not) who have a similar sense of humor or are moved by a similar moment of beauty and honesty on the screen.


We may never agree with the people sitting next to us. We may never be fully united. That may never change, but through various forms of public entertainment, we learn to respect our neighbors and share a space together.


The things we share in movie theaters, concerts, sports arenas, theme parks, churches, and other public places simply cannot be replicated online.


Sadly, a world filled with isolated individuals who only interact with other faceless, nameless avatars through a screen is a cold, dismal, and disconnected place. It’s a world where individuals, who can’t see (and feel) the smiles, the tears, and the joy of others, are easily led to hate those in other tribes on the other side of the digital domain.


Furthermore, a society where we are constantly separated by masks and plexiglass, can no longer sit together in one theater or church service, or are prevented from simply conversing with those we disagree with is a society that doesn’t have much chance of survival.

Now I have no problem crediting new technology, streaming media, and home entertainment for their merits.


I appreciate the storytelling of a good movie or TV show in any format and am happy to watch a movie at home with my family any day.


Streaming services like Disney+ and HBO Max can also provide an affordable, convenient, and even quality entertainment option within the home. This can foster interaction too, and, yes, many home theaters and sound systems have grown to rival modern movie theaters.


However, this is a different kind of interaction, one that brings together those who likely already know each other and probably already have shared values and beliefs. And just because something is cheaper, easier, quicker, or more convenient doesn’t mean it’s always better or better for us.


I also recognize that many movie theaters are going to have a tough time in the post-pandemic era, especially as restrictions and mandates linger. And to be clear, there's a lot of garbage being released nowadays that I wouldn't pay $15 or even $5 to see in theaters or at home.


Hollywood as we know it may already be imploding on itself.


The business side of streaming vs. traditional media may favor a more subscription-based model of customized home entertainment. Studios may find it more profitable to shift their focus to their streaming platforms, leaving movie theaters in the dust. This would be a huge loss in my opinion.


Similarly, many colleges may move entirely online. More people may continue to watch church from home, but for the health of our society, we should all make returning the movies, restaurants, the gym, and especially in person worship services a priority in the days to come.


Human connection, social interaction, and various forms of public entertainment are essential, now more than ever, and if we don’t want to repeat the gloom, division, and disarray of the past year, we’d be wise to learn that lesson now before it’s too late.


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Thanks again. Now get back to living and spending time with others.

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