I grew up surrounded by movies. Literally.
I remember staring up in wonder at stacks of VHS tapes perched high in a hallway closet at our first house. This was before I could even read the labels: tiny, Sharpie titles in my mom’s neat script: my parents’ recorded-off-HBO-in-the-late-80s collection.
Starting at 4-years-old, I took karate lessons next door to a bank that’d been converted into “Doorstep Video.” My little brother and I worked our way through the entire “Martial Arts” section including the classics starring Bruce Lee, Steven Segal and Jean Claude Van Damme. Doorstep Video awarded me a copy of Disney’s “Aladdin” when I was 10-years-old for my expert coloring job of this picture; they “liked the little extra details I added to the magic carpet with metallic crayons.
When I was 10, Planet Video opened up across the street from Doorstep with 10x the selection and put Doorstep out of business within a few years. When blockbusters like “Men in Black” were released on home video (after what always felt like years of waiting since they’d been in theaters), they commanded several shelves of DVDs—hundreds of copies all lined up in neat rows floor to ceiling. Planet Hollywood rented on a first come, first served basis—no reservations or special perks; if you were lucky enough to find a copy behind one of those hundreds of cases, it was yours for two nights. I literally ran to those shelves when big movies came out.
I’ve been to hundreds of movie theaters all over the world. I saw “Jurassic Park” at a movie theater in Eagle River, Wisconsin while on summer vacation. My Great Uncle Jim jumped and spilled popcorn all over his lap during that terrifying raptor intrusion.
My dad told me about his coming-of-age theater experience: seeing “Star Wars” for the first time and walking out of the theater with a new concept of what’s possible. Mine was “The Matrix,” which I saw with my parents and little brother at a really long, narrow theater in Washington DC’s underground mall. Like most audiences around the world, we went into the movie with no idea of what to expect because the promotional campaign was famously opaque. The theater crowd was rowdy. After the action-packed opening sequence that debuts the freeze-and-pivot effect, there was a moment of hushed silence in the theater… and then all hell broke loose. A guy next to me stood up, turned around and whooped like Arsenio Hall to everyone behind us.
I saw “Der Babynator” aka “The Pacifier” with Vin Diesel in Munich, Germany. I prefer their title.
A few years ago I saw the Pikachu movie with Ryan Reynolds in a Hanoi, Vietnam multiplex that was part theater, part food court, part Dave & Buster’s. My buddy and I were the only adults in the theater who weren’t chaperoning children. We had more fun than the kids because we understood all the jokes—not just the fart ones.
Four theater experiences stand out in my mind as ‘popcorn stoppers’—when the audience is so enraptured that they stop munching on their snacks. The first is seeing the haunting Afghanistan war documentary “Restrepo” in a small theater in St. Louis. The second is experiencing “The Revenant” at The Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, especially that merciless, nightmarish bear attack scene—perhaps three of the longest minutes in cinematic history. The third was sitting on the floor of an overfilled film festival theater for the horrifying documentary “The Act of Killing.”
Finally, I saw a festival screening of the highly controversial film “Compliance”—during which a scion of Milwaukee stood up and asked, to his entire row of audience strangers, “Why would they show this?” before leaving the theater, never to return.
That’s the power of the movie theater.
And I suppose that’s my point.
I cherish the memories of my parents’ forbidden VHS closet and Doorstep Video, but I struggle to recall any details about watching those movies at home—where I was, who I was with, etc.
Seeing a movie in a theater is an event with its own meta, three-act narrative: go to the theater; watch the movie; go home. Watching a movie at home is not, especially as the experience becomes more and more frictionless… “Hey Google, turn on the TV and play ‘Surf Ninjas’ from Netflix.”
Mark my words: we are going back to theaters, and we are going back in force. And not just because we crave social and communal experiences. But because we crave events too.
About 14 years ago, my dad set me up for lunch with Bruce Olson, then the longtime president of the Marcus Theatres Corporation, because I was trying to figure out how to break into the movie business. All the buzz in the industry at the moment was about “the battle of the high definition DVD formats: HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray.” The sentiment was that, no matter which format won, it surely spelled doom for movie theaters because now people could watch theater-quality images at home. I asked Bruce what he thought.
I could immediately tell he was pleased with this question. He pushed back from the table and smiled. “Matt, over a hundred years ago, when sound was first introduced to films, everyone said the movies were finished because ‘why would anyone watch a recorded play when they could see a live theatrical performance with real people?’ They thought adding sound was going to kill films, not enliven them. Since then, the movies have been pronounced dead four more times: when color TVs came out; when the VHS premiered; when cable and premium networks exploded; and when DVDs were introduced. You know what’s happened after every one of those death notices? The movies have some of their best years ever.” (And they did again in the years after that lunch.)
Bruce finished with gusto, “Blu-Ray…X-ray… It doesn’t matter! Theaters will never die. You know why? Because people love watching movies together, and nothing will ever change that.”
Nothing will ever change that… including this pandemic.
In fact, I’ve talked to other movie lovers and we all agree: distance has made our hearts grow fonder. We all can’t wait for Hollywood’s Sequel… “Return to Theaters”!
Bruce will be there. So will I. I hope to see the rest of you there too.