• 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 this writer’s life before the pandemic hit and our 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 limited by statewide Covid measures. 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 over 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 even vital about public gatherings where people who've never met can sit down and share something together. There’s something healthy about getting out and getting to enjoy life with those you do know.

I have missed going to the movies, cheering for my Anaheim Ducks, and eating out more than I’ve probably allowed myself to admit. Who hasn't?

That’s not to say that I haven’t cherished the time at home with my wife and daughter. We’ve made dinner together, gone on bike rides, and watched plenty of movies from the comfort of our home; but a night out at the movies, with my wife by my side and 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 pre-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 cinema 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. These were the pre-reservation/ select seating days.

I remember the awe I felt the first time I saw Pandora as a film student and how movies like Avatar, King Kong, and The Dark Knight inspired me to tell better stories and fall even more in love with the cinema.

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. It's become one of our family traditions over the years.

Yes, traditions do change, and sometimes for the better, but they are also worth preserving when possible. Let's never forget this.

The movie theater can be a magical place. It has been for quite some time. 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 we should all value.

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 believers and 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.

Now there is a pretty big difference between going to church and going to the movies or watching sports. I'm certainly not equating the two. Both are important in different ways, and having churches closed has arguably done more damage to society than we probably know.

In a movie theater, total strangers 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 experience of going into a movie theater is similar to a hero who enters the Innermost Cave to be tested and challenged. The one who exits this cave, like the theater, can be very different from the one who first entered.

The movie theater is a place created for perspective gathering, and there is a unique magic to the movie theater that extends far beyond its impact on the individual.

Regardless of anybody’s best intentions or motives sustaining some of the more strict Covid lockdowns 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.

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” activities 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 enjoy together.

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 does unite us.

On the other hand, the importance of movie theaters, sports, concerts, and theme parks in society is a huge reason why I strongly oppose to the presence (or invasion) of politics into these arenas.

I understand that movies rely on storytelling and stories will always be written from different perspectives, however, if you polarize the few places that are designed to be places of joy, common ground, and unified celebration, you have given your society and those in it nowhere to go where they are not bombarded with some form of ideology or political message.

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 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, we connect with those people, 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.

Now I have no problem crediting technology, social media, 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 can also provide an affordable, convenient, and even quality entertainment option within the home. This can foster social interaction too, and, yes, many home theaters and sound systems have grown to rival modern movie theaters. However, it's a different kind of interaction, one that brings together those who likely already know each other and likely already have shared values and beliefs. This is a good thing by the way.

But just because something is cheaper, easier, quicker, or more convenient 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 fully lifted.

To be clear, not every movie is worth seeing, and there's a lot of garbage and political pandering being released nowadays that I wouldn't pay $15 or even $5 to see in theaters or at home.

I struggle to support many major studios and performers who've completely sold out and abandoned any sense of personal ethics for success and bigger overseas box office.

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, even post-pandemic, but for the health of our society, we should all make returning the movies, restaurants, the gym, and especially church 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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