Blockbusters are back, but a big part of moviegoing will still be missing
Blockbuster movies are finally back. But when we can't all go and see them together, it sure doesn't feel like it.
After theater chains that closed during the COVID-19 pandemic began reopening in August, the first major tentpole release in months is arriving in the United States Thursday: Christopher Nolan's Tenet. Yet the return of moviegoing as we knew it still seems out of reach, especially given one unfortunate side effect of this mid-pandemic return: our collective cultural conversation looks set to become more fragmented than ever.
It's been so long since we last went to the movies that it's worth reiterating what their appeal actually was in the first place. The magic of the movie theater was always tied to the experience of sitting in a room full of strangers laughing and crying at the same thing, and a great blockbuster film, in particular, still has the ability to draw all of our attention at basically the same time. At their best, such a movie practically demands that anyone interested turn out on its opening weekend or very soon after, lest they experience a serious case of FOMO.
This is something that is increasingly vanishing in the modern entertainment landscape, especially in the world of television. Streaming, after all, has conditioned viewers to feel like there's no need to watch anything at any specific time, and catching up on shows months or even years later is increasingly common. We're all in various stages of different series, but rarely are we all exactly in sync.
With film, that's not quite as true, at least not when it comes to the biggest of the big blockbusters. Just look back to last year's Avengers: Endgame. If you were remotely interested in what happened after Avengers: Infinity War's cliffhanger, turning out to see Endgame even one weekend late was hardly an option, not only because you didn't want to be spoiled, but because, well, how could you miss out on the thing that everyone would be talking about on Monday? The energy in theaters when Endgame opened, and that feeling that we were all partaking in this massive cultural moment together, was unforgettable.
But in September 2020, Hollywood is grappling with how to release major blockbusters in the COVID-19 era. Unfortunately, the feeling a movie like Endgame gave audiences likely will not be possible to recapture in the same way until the pandemic has passed. For one thing, the excitement that comes with being in a packed, roaring crowd when Steve Rogers lifts Mjolnir can't fully return until movie theaters may actually safely be packed again. But there's also the fact that premiering films exclusively in theaters right now will mean that many of even the most devoted moviegoers will experience them at dramatically different times, possibly several months apart.
After all, as Tenet opens in the United States, The Hollywood Reporter notes it won't actually be playing in the two largest markets of New York City and Los Angeles, where officials have not yet deemed it safe to reopen movie theaters. And even those consumers who are allowed to see it might not want to take the risk. Theaters have implemented health and safety protocols, but the U.S. continues to report tens of thousands of COVID-19 cases every day, and experts have warned about the risks of sitting indoors for hours surrounded by other people during a pandemic. It seems likely that some significant portion of the American moviegoing population, including those who would ordinarily have an opening night ticket of Tenet booked weeks in advance, will feel they have no choice but to sit this one out, especially if they're in a vulnerable group or live with vulnerable loved ones.
Tenet was clearly never going to be close to the event Endgame was, but pre-COVID, it surely would have been more of a widespread conversation-starter than it can be in a world where many of the conversations it generates around the country won't quite sync up. Remember the summer when no one could stop talking about the spinning top at the end of Inception? Can a point of discussion like that really emerge from Tenet under these circumstances?
Maybe to a lesser degree, but it ultimately seems that Tenet's prospective viewers will be sadly split up into multiple smaller groups who see the film under very different circumstances, from those who feel it's worth the risk turning out right when it opens, to those who might wait several weeks to see how the reopening goes, to those who can't see it in theaters or aren't willing to do so and might catch up on video-on-demand around December. By then, all these groups might agree the movie is great, but the opportunity to join in on a simultaneous viewing experience, and the book club-esque collective online discussion that normally follows, will have passed. Given this, wouldn't waiting to release the film until it wouldn't be necessary to leave so many moviegoers behind be worth it?
Perhaps this collective viewing phenomenon is something that can be somewhat replicated with Mulan, which is also debuting this weekend but will be more widely accessible to U.S. consumers as it streams on Disney+ for $30. After all, Hamilton made quite a splash online when it dropped on Disney+ in July, and that was a five-year old Broadway show many viewers had already memorized every single word of.
What the immediate future of moviegoing will look like, and whether the release strategy of Tenet will be imitated in the coming months or be seen as a failed experiment that results in more films being delayed into next year, isn't yet clear. But more than anything, this return of Hollywood blockbusters in a way that fails to bring us all together serves as yet another somber reminder of how good we used to have it — and how far from normal we still are.