“We have to at least consider the possibility that many Americans, like me, will almost never see a movie in the theater again,” wrote Megan McArdle in The Washington Post on Monday. This has been a common sentiment in my circles over the last few months. Movie theaters — the actual act of moviegoing, of going to a movie — has never been in such existential peril. Streaming services and the dramatic improvement of the home-theater experience had already been putting the squeeze on theaters for a few years now, but the pandemic accelerated that trend, as it has with so much else. The general consensus is that the entire industry appears to be in a death spiral.
As someone who loves going to the movies as much as I love anything on this planet — I host a weekly movie podcast with my oldest friend Tim Grierson, a film critic with whom I’ve been having hours-long conversations about movies for more than 30 years — this is deeply saddening. We go to the movies not just as an act of escape but as a portal to another world, one where we can experience life outside of our own personal borders and limitations. Roger Ebert once wrote that “the movies are a machine that generates empathy.” They are a way to see through other humans’ eyes, a way to leave yourself for a couple of uninterrupted hours, a way to be someone else, somewhere else. The home experience, with the constant hum and temptation of your phone or your refrigerator or your bed, reminds you how grounded and constrained you are as simply yourself; the movies let you fly. The idea of movie theaters closing forever is a tragic one, to me and to millions of others.
Media trends, thanks to Netflix and other streaming services, have been pushing people away from theaters, but Hollywood was hardly going out of business; people still spent $11.3 billion at American theaters last year. But the pandemic has, for good reason, made us all terrified of public spaces, of sharing enclosed air with strangers, and that has knocked the wind out of the industry. Warner Bros. attempted to salvage the release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet even though theaters in New York and Los Angeles (the two largest markets in the country) were closed, and the movie isn’t even close to recouping its massive budget; Disney tried releasing Mulan for $30 to Disney+ subscribers, because theaters themselves weren’t available, but that didn’t turn out well either. Meanwhile, theater chains are barely hanging on; AMC has watched nearly half a billion dollars vanish, and Regal Cinemas may have lost even more. Studios have quickly moved to postponing their blockbusters like Wonder Woman 1984 and Black Widow until they believe people will feel safe going back to movie theaters again. Whenever that might possibly be. If there are any theater chains even still around to show them.
What’s perhaps most curious about this is that for all the talk and worries about catching COVID-19 in a movie theater, there is a curious lack of evidence of … people actually catching COVID-19 in a movie theater. Writer Neal Pollack noted a couple of weeks ago just how difficult it is to find even a single documented case of someone contracting the coronavirus in a movie theater. That is not to say it is impossible, of course, or that it hasn’t happened: Surely, at some point, it has. But movie theaters around the world, in countries doing a much better job of suppressing the spread of COVID-19, have been open for months, and, as Pollack notes, there still hasn’t been even a single case specifically tracked back to a theater. This includes a film festival in Spain and the millions of people who paid to see Tenet. (It has made more than $280 million worldwide.)
There is obviously risk in doing literally anything on this planet right now that isn’t “sitting in your house by yourself.” (An activity I can always appreciate.) But one of the many moral hazard lines Warner Bros. was accused of crossing was potentially allowing Nolan’s film to become a superspreader event, infecting millions of moviegoers. That did not happen. Some epidemiologists don’t consider movie theaters unusually effective vectors for infection, no more so than any other indoor activity and probably less than, say, restaurants (where people are talking) or churches (where people are singing).
But, clearly, Hollywood is having a difficult time convincing the average citizen of that, even if they did bring out Tom Cruise.
And this is the fundamental question of this moment, isn’t it? In the absence of a cohesive, coherent federal strategy to combat COVID-19, or at least to mitigate its spread, we have all been forced to make short-term decisions that will lead to unforeseen but negative long-term consequences. If you are trying to keep yourself safe from getting COVID-19 — and your country doesn’t have adequate testing or tracing systems in place that will make you feel more protected and more aware of the risk factors of the people who surround you — you are loathe to take any unnecessary risks at all. Even if you want to watch Tenet, you don’t know if you have COVID and you don’t know if the people around you do either. So why push it? Just watch a movie at home. It might be a weaker experience. It might be less transportive to another world. But it is definitely less likely to give you COVID.
Which is fine. I get it! I avoid risk all the time. Except when this is over — and it will be over, someday, some year, some decade — there might not be movie theaters waiting for you when you’re ready to come back out. A total industry is being roiled, upended and possibly destroyed right now wholly out of fear that, in the grand scheme of risk assessment, might not be entirely warranted.
One of the hardest parts of living in 2020 is the regular turmoil and stress that comes with having to weigh potentially life-and-death matters alongside decisions that we typically consider mundane. Do I need to go to the grocery store? Should I get on that elevator? Perhaps it’s time to cancel my gym membership? These are dumb, dull daily decisions which usually don’t make a difference at all, and suddenly it feels like your whole world is riding on them. We tell ourselves, to get through it, that it won’t be like this forever, that it’ll be back to normal someday. But some things aren’t going back to normal. If movie theaters are one of those things that don’t make it, that could end up happening without a single COVID outbreak in any movie theater in the country. It could happen just because we’re afraid of it. And in the era of COVID … that fear is enough. That fear is more than enough.
Will Leitch will be writing multiple pieces a week for Medium. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.