• Joel Ryan

Movie Theaters are More Important Than We Realize

Updated: Apr 1

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 would quickly go on to win the Best Picture Oscar only a few weeks later.

Going to the movies was, of course, a mainstay of this writer’s life before the pandemic hit and most local leaders 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 the better part of a year.

Theme parks, concerts, sporting events … all closed or, at the very least, severely restricted by Covid measures. And that’s not including the countless schools, churches, restaurants, gyms, and countless small businesses that 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 unique and special about public gatherings where people who've never met can sit and enjoy something together. There’s something special about getting out and getting to enjoy life with those you do know.

Full transparency. I have missed going to the movies and eating out more than I’ve probably allowed myself to admit this year.

That’s not to say that I haven’t cherished the time at home with my wife and daughter. We’ve watched plenty of movies and new streaming series together from the comfort of our home; but a night out at the movies, with my wife by my side, a large soda in one hand and a bucket of popcorn in the other (Buncha Crunch for her), had also become an important part of our relationship before the pandemic.

Even before I met my wife, going to the movies was a rare and highly anticipated treat in our family and one of the most magical experiences a kid who’d become obsessed with storytelling could enjoy.

I still remember the first time I saw Toy Story, The Phantom Menace, and X-Men in theaters.

I remember waiting in line for three hours as a teen to make sure I had the best seat for the midnight premier of The Return of the King.

I remember the awe of first traveling to Pandora as a film student, and how movies like Avatar, King Kong, and The Dark Knight inspired me to tell better stories and create new worlds for others to explore.

And to this day, I look forward to the premier of the next James Bond film for my dad, uncle, and I to attend together, as has been one of our many family traditions over the years. Yes, traditions do change, and sometimes for the better, but they are also worth preserving and fighting for when possible. Let's not forget that.

The movie theater is different from most experiences we have in society. Not only does it represent the perfect marriage of art and technology, the experience of going into a theater and being allowed a moment of reprieve from the stress and chaos of the outside world is something worth treasuring.

Of course, the movie theater isn’t the only place where we go to find rest or unwind, detox, and refocus 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 God and encourage each other. It seems that even those activities have become harder to experience these days as well.

A movie theater, however, has something unique going for it.

Total strangers will enter a dark room, sit together in relative silence for anywhere from two to three hours, and allow themselves to be taken on a journey through the fictional characters they see on the screen. In pure Joseph Campbell terms, the movie theater is the social equivalent of the Inner Cave.

Similar to a hero who enters the cave to be tested and challenges, the one who exits the theater can be very different from the one who first entered. If the storyteller has done their job, they (the audience) has been challenged and even changed by the events of the story. They may have laughed or cried, but in their experience, they have hopefully learned something about themselves and gained a little more perspective on the world and those living in it.

If not, at the very least, they've been given a moment to escape from the real world and simply rest in a good story.

The movie theater is a place created for perspective gathering and dare I say transformation. There is a unique magic to the movie theater that extends beyond its impact on the individual.

Regardless of anybody’s best intentions or the motives sustaining some of the more draconian policies we’ve seen in 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 from society.

That isn’t a political statement by the way. 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.

Community, human interaction, and social gatherings are essential for the survival of any society, and it’s not selfish to advocate for the kinds of activities, events, and places in society that make this possible.

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

How and how often we interact with others outside of the home contributes to the health of the individual and also the health of the community.

Entertainment plays 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 enjoy together and share with those around us.

When we no longer believe we have anything in common because we no longer have opportunities to make those discoveries, we lose awareness of what unites us.

Is it any wonder we are so divided? Or better yet, is it any wonder we’ve been convinced we are so divided?

There’s something remarkable about being invested in a playoff game in an arena full of 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 from another state or country.

In those moments, the things that divide and separate us fade away. We may hold different political, philosophical, or religious beliefs, 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 may never agree with the people sitting next to us. That may never change, but through various forms of entertainment and public gatherings, we get to share light-hearted human moments with people who maybe aren’t like-minded at all.

The things we share in movie theaters, concerts, sports arenas, theme parks, churches, and other public places cannot be replicated online or social media in the same way.

I have no problem praising social media, streaming media, and home entertainment for their merits. I appreciate the storytelling of a good movie or TV show in any format. Streaming services can provide an affordable, convenient, and even quality entertainment option within the home. This can foster social interaction with family and friends just as much as going to the theater, and, yes, many home theaters and sound systems have grown to rival modern movie theaters in many regards.

But just because something is cheaper, easier, quicker, or newer doesn’t mean it’s always better or better for us as a society.

Movies theaters may have a tough time reopening once lockdowns are eventually lifted. The business side of streaming vs. traditional media may favor a more subscription-based model of customized home entertainment in the future. Studios may find it more profitable to shift their focus to their streaming platforms and leave movie theaters in the dust.

Likewise, more schools may move entirely online. More people may continue to watch church from home, even post-pandemic, but for the health of our society and those living in it, we should all make returning the movies, restaurants, the gym, and church a priority in the days to come.

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

When the time comes, I’ll see you at the movies, and if you're willing to join me, the popcorn's on me.

That being said, thank you for taking a few minutes out of your day to read this post. As always, if you enjoyed or were motivated and inspired by these words, hit the heart icon below, share this post with someone you know, or subscribe to this blog to help me keep writing and providing fresh perspective to the students, storytellers, and seekers of this world.

Until Today, movie-goers, friends, and fellow believers.

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