The last time I paid to see a movie in theaters was January 18. I was seeing Les Misérables, and the theater was New York's Angelika Film Center, a creaky art house down in SoHo where you can feel the trains thunder underfoot every 10 minutes or so (amazingly, this is less distracting than it sounds). If I'd known it was going to be my last ticket purchase for the foreseeable future, I'd have bought an extra large bucket of popcorn and eaten it by the fist-full; instead, I opted "semi-healthy," and got a quiche at the in-house cafe.
I keep thinking about that forgone bucket of popcorn, though. At the start of this week, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp (R) announced that the state will be reopening movie theaters next Monday, April 27, which sounds almost as unbelievable as our current situation might have sounded to me back in January. You mean people will be able to go see movies again? They can sit in sticky seats and inhale the wafting odors of hot dogs sizzling at the concession stand, groan about how long the trailers are taking, and, best of all, order buckets and buckets of delicious, buttery movie theater popcorn?
But of course not — as much as I, too, sincerely wish it were so. Going to the movies anytime soon is a pipe dream, and one that, as states begin to reopen prematurely, could become a nightmare.
Ever since the outbreak began, people have naturally been turning to movies. It makes perfect sense: We're stuck inside all the time and there are only seven episodes of Tiger King, so what else are we going to do with all our time? But movies have also become comforts and cautionary tales to audiences in quarantine, as well as offered something of a blueprint for what to expect during our "new normal." Purchases of Contagion, a film about a global pandemic that came out in 2011, skyrocketed when the outbreak began. And now as Georgia is poised to reopen theaters, another film might become uncomfortably relevant again as well: 1995's Outbreak, which, of all things, illustrates how a virus can spread through a movie theater:
Okay, yes, so it's obviously dramatized — people likely won't be dropping dead of COVID-19 and spilling popcorn across the floors of multiplexes — but even the increased cleaning measures emphasized by Governor Kemp aren't going to stop the virus from spreading in an enclosed room. Look at what's happening in churches, which are also indoor spaces where people sit in rows for long periods of time; many have become viral hotspots, with one California megachurch linked to infecting 70 different people with COVID-19. The outbreak in the Navajo Nation, now the third-worst in the country behind New York and New Jersey, has also been linked back to a single church. Even practicing social distancing measures such as operating at half capacity or with staggered seating — ideas I'd once ignorantly touted before the outbreak got bad — is foolish. A choir practice in Washington state in early March, for example, resulted in two people dying from COVID-19 and dozens of others catching the disease, despite the group's conscious efforts to avoid direct physical contact with each other.
Sadly, it's because of their outsized potential to be coronavirus hotbeds that movie theaters are hurting right now and also why reopening is so tantalizing. AMC, the largest movie theater chain in the world, is $4.9 billion in debt, Vanity Fair reports (China's Dalian Wanda Group, which owns AMC, has called rampant speculation that the theater might file for bankruptcy "pure rumors"). Cinemark, which owns 554 theaters, is also in trouble. Particularly as film studios increasingly explore direct-to-customer releases as a means of making up revenue during the outbreak, multiplexes are facing the very real threat of being rendered obsolete by the time the country fully reopens. But even if upper management might feel an urgency to reopen movie theater doors, it is their workers — who, at an AMC, make between $8.10 and $16.75 per hour — that would unfairly bear the burden of risking their lives for the sake of, what? Allowing audiences to watch Trolls World Tour on the big screen? It isn't worth it.
Reopening theaters is not going to be the economic cure-all that some politicians seem to be hoping for, either. Even before the lockdowns, audiences had plummeted; a poll by Morning Consult in late February found that already 29 percent of adults were saying they were "less likely" to go to a movie theater because of the outbreak, a number that would be far, far greater now. The weekend box office of March 15, right before many of the statewide shutdowns, saw the worst total in two decades. Plus, what exactly are you going to see anyway? Major studios have pushed back their tentpoles to the fall or, in many cases, all the way to 2021. WB and Disney offer the best look at when movie theaters might reopen: Christopher Nolan's Tenet has yet to be pushed back from its July 17 release date, and Disney rebooked Mulan for July 24. Still, with other coronavirus cancelations now creeping into the late summer and early fall, even July looks pretty iffy.
The reality is, nowhere is going to be entirely safe until we have a vaccine. The next best thing will be targeted, localized quarantines to snuff out potential outbreaks — something that won't be possible until we have widespread, easy testing. Last month China reopened its theaters for less than 24 hours before deciding to close them again. I'd not be surprised to see a similar mess in Georgia as crowds result in renewed tragedy. One thing seems certain to everyone who's paying attention: rushing into anything at this point in the pandemic is a death sentence for the most vulnerable members of our community. "I think people haven't understood that this isn't about the next couple of weeks," is what one expert told The Atlantic recently. "This is about the next two years."
To those of us who have made moviegoing our life, that's crushing to take in. "It is an exquisite, human thing to sit with all those other souls, to be alone with others," The New York Times' film critic wrote in a beautiful tribute to the theater, one that echoes my own love of those dark, crowded spaces. And when movies eventually come back, safely and responsibly, you can bet I'll be first in line, ordering that large popcorn for one.
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