Magazine for Sexuality and Politics

Saving Our Dying Movie Theaters

David T. Lynch

I’m old enough to remember lots of people and mainstream media outlets confidently predicting the imminent mass extinction of movie theaters. This was not so long after the VHS format had decisively triumphed over its rival Beta format in the great VCR war that occurred way back when in another century. But this did not come to pass, as movie theaters were still rather resilient. Yes, even my technologically averse family did end up purchasing a VCR and we did even rent a few movies every once in a while from the video rental chain Blockbuster, as a matter of course, yet it just was not the equivalent experience of watching a film at a movie theater. Even as a kid, this was so clear to me. The first factor was the small size of our TV, then its average audio quality. I must also add to all this the sad fact that the ambience of our living room, unfortunately, wasn’t on par with most doctor and dentist waiting rooms. So it wasn’t such a great place to watch a film. There were other distractions too deriving from a seemingly constant influx of people and four-legged beings. The movie theater was just different and not just from an aesthetic, phenomenological or psychological point of view. It possessed certain unique qualities and, for me at least, there was a certain kind of sacredness about it. The movie theater was and still is simply special.

Our family mainly went to a certain movie theater that was part of a chain located at a large shopping mall located in an adjacent city. I saw Star Wars there as well as The Dark Crystal, for instance. To be honest, we did not go to the movies that often and perhaps this very fact added something, a je ne sais quoi factor perhaps, to the inherent allure and mystique of movie theaters for me as a child. I would watch movie videos at home occasionally but, more often than not, at a friend’s house whose family had accumulated hundreds of movies, in one way or another without too much concern for legal consequences, in the Beta format surprisingly enough (well, it did admittedly possess better image and sound quality than the VHS format). There I remember quite distinctly watching the epic film Red Dawn on a small television set in a room with a certain depressing atmosphere that was full of dog hair.

Another main historical factor in the 1980’s that led to the decline of movie theaters was the introduction of cable TV or rather its widespread adoption. Specifically, there were channels like HBO and Showtime that allowed you to watch Hollywood films without even needing to rent or purchase the videotape. The friend I mentioned also happened to have access to these sources of films too. Movie theaters took yet another hit when companies such as Netflix made it easier to rent out films. If my memory serves me right, by the early 2000’s Hollywood film conglomerates were making their films available on various formats with very little lag time after these same films had been shown in movie theaters. Not surprisingly, the impactful, sociological study about the growing personal alienation and decline in social institutions in American culture entitled Bowling Alone came out around this time too in 2000. Fast forward two decades, and the entire world found itself caught in the grip of a pandemic. We were collectively forced to stay at home for quite some time and this situation gave rise, arguably, to a greater sense of inwardness and further normalized the notion that, well, movies were meant to be seen on a computer screen or on a large screen TV with or without a decent set of speakers. During the last ten years or so and specifically since the onset of the pandemic, we have seen the rise of what may broadly be termed as series. Neither a true movie nor a true TV series, these filmic productions would appear to have their common origin in the first two seasons of David Lynch’s eccentric television series Twin Peaks and are exclusively associated with private viewing experiences. Movie theaters currently are dying out in a kind of pandemic style with a high excessive death rate primarily due to changes in general human behavior and economic factors related to the fact that they were forced to close down during the pandemic that threatened humans on account of safety concerns and so a great deal of them just went out of business as a result of this measure. Indeed, paralleling this situation, Hollywood itself seems to also be in its final death throes especially since late 2019.

So, what can be done about this utterly dreadful state of affairs? I firmly believe that movie theaters are special and that they offer a unique viewing experience due to multiple factors. I don’t believe that they will ever vanish, which is kind of proven already when considering the fact that venues specializing in live theater and music productions are still around. Movie theater owners and those considering running one ought to take into account with a great sense of acuity cultural and economic trends as well as do their best to capitalize on the inherent qualities of movie theaters such as the collective experience that also entails a kind of private, aesthetic involvement, superior sound quality, large screens, overpriced popcorn and other snacks of questionable, nutritional value as well as, of course, that certain je ne sais quoi factor. Right now, what I personally observe is a major pushback that seems to be only expanding against retail chains and corporate brands in general in favor of boutique places (ideally family owned) and the unique, phenomenological experiences associated with them. So, movie theaters can capitalize on this trend, especially if the movie theater happens to be of a certain age and possesses that vintage appeal or just happens to be different in a modern or unique way. Nearly every moderately-sized city has or has had a movie theater that was built long ago. These places can be revived and their distinct personalities, if possible, should be retained and perhaps even some up-to-date elements can be incorporated Connected with this, locally sourced food and alcohol could be offered and/or even a small restaurant could be present on the premises. Even large movie chains can capitalize on this widespread trend by incorporating certain elements from the locality in which each of their movie theaters finds itself situated and also by considering ditching corporate style giant movie complexes in favor of smaller venues, especially those with a vintage appeal, or by considering creating an original and smaller architectural model for cinema unique to their brand. To sustain themselves economically, movie theaters can also rent out their space so that it can be used for events such as weddings and parties and I can confirm that this practice is already going on at certain ones already. These events could (and should) also incorporate watching a movie as part of the event being held. Furthermore, certain movie theaters, especially those specializing in art films, could offer educational seminars onsite regarding important aspects of creating films, for instance, sponsor film clubs at local high schools and provide greater opportunities for Indy filmmakers, especially local ones, to showcase their work there. They could also, for example, become the venue where an annual film event is held. At the same time, these particular movie theaters need to retain a sense of exclusivity. Not just any Indy filmmaker automatically gets the right to exhibit their visual work of art just because they are an Indy filmmaker. In other words, the right balance needs to be struck. It probably is a good idea for large movie chains to use their economic leverage to convince Netflix and other companies that produce series such as Westworld to let them show these series on the big screen. In short, there does exist a viable future for movie theaters, both economically and artistically, and I am convinced that movie theaters can find ways to rebound from their current, dire situation. The precise details and strategies might not be so evident at the moment but their future will most certainly be one involving a certain focus on their heritage, economic flexibility and an openness to diverse modalities of showcasing filmic productions as well as other mediatic content.

Photos: header : Myke Simon (unsplash)
teaser + picture within the text: David T. Lynch

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