• 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 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 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 the better part of a year.

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 even a year later.

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, and share something together. There’s something healthy about getting out, getting sun, and getting to enjoy life with others, whether they are part of our immediate social circle or not.

The movie theater can be a magical part of this kind social interaction. It has been for quite some time. Not only does it represent the perfect marriage of art, storytelling, 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 we should all appreciate.

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. Many people of faith gather with fellow believers to worship God and encourage each other. It seems those activities have become tougher to experience these days too.

There is a massive difference between Christians gathering together (church) and going to the movies or watching our favorite team duke it out with their bitter rival. I'm certainly not equating the two. Both are important in their own way, and having churches closed has arguably done more damage to our society than most making those decisions could have known or anticipated. Perhaps they did know and that’s why they did it.

There is a deeply spiritual and socially destabilizing impact of isolating people from each other.

Regardless of anybody’s best intentions or motives sustaining some of the more strict 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. 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 even strangers.

Community and human interaction are essential for the survival of any society, and it’s not selfish to advocate for the kinds of activities, events, and places that foster this kind of connection.

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

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

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 from another state or country.

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 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, some who may be very different than us.

The things we share in movie theaters, concerts, sports arenas, theme parks, churches, and other public places simply cannot be replicated online or in social media in the same way. Sadly an world full of isolated individuals is a cold, lonely place with divided people who are told it’s okay to hate those they disagree with.

A society where we are separated by masks and plexiglass, no longer sit together in one theater or church service, or simply dialogue with those around us 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 and friends 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 movie theaters will have a tough time in the post-pandemic era with new restrictions and mandates imposed, not to mention public hesitancy and reliance on streaming media. 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 even on a grainy cell phone.

Hollywood 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 in the near future. Studios may find it more profitable to shift their focus to their streaming platforms, leaving movie theaters in the dust. This would be a 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 church 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.


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