The Uncertain Return of Movie Theaters

As big budget films like “Tenet” premiere across the world, many question how much longer New York movie theaters can survive while closed.

The AMC movie theater on 3rd and East 11th used to have people lined up around the block for movie premieres. Now, after many long months, the question of whether or not to reopen movie theaters in New York is still uncertain. (Staff Photo by Manasa Gudavalli)

After seven long and excruciating months, I finally stepped foot inside a movie theater again. I ventured to the AMC Clifton Commons 16 in New Jersey and watched Christopher Nolan’s newest blockbuster “Tenet.” I had no expectations, I just wanted some loud synths and ridiculous practical effects. And I did get that. But when I walked out of the theater, an overwhelming sense of  disappointment came over me. With “Tenet,” the spectacle is there. This is a $205 million original film, but if it hadn’t left my jaw on the floor (visually speaking), it would’ve been a waste of time. 

“Tenet” delivered 120% on spectacle — my mind was blown. If there’s any film that deserves to be seen on the big screen, it’s this one. The difference between seeing “Tenet’s” IMAX visuals in a theater versus experiencing them at home would be astronomical. It’s a film created solely for the intent of being seen on the biggest screen possible. Without the big screen thrills a movie theater offers, “Tenet” would’ve been hundreds of millions of dollars worth of action set pieces and ear-shattering audio reduced to a tiny screen and a less than adequate speaker system. Seeing “Tenet” at home would devitalize its visual grandeur and turn it into two hours of boring exposition and poorly mixed dialogue.  

That said, “Tenet” was the perfect film to return to theaters with. Not only because of its theater-tailored visuals and sound, but because of its filmmaker. “Tenet” was delayed four times because Nolan demanded an exclusively theatrical release. While the pandemic saw a rise in video-on-demand releases for films like “Mulan” and “The King of Staten Island,” Nolan (a fierce advocate for theatrical exhibition) insisted his film be released in cinemas globally. “Tenet” was the topic of headlines and hysteria over the last few months, gaining a near-messianic status as it was purported to be the saving grace for movie theaters. 

While “Tenet” has made a promising $200 million globally, mainly in Europe and Asia, it’s stumbled quite severely in the United States, with a lackluster $9 million on its opening weekend. The studio made a bold gamble and it seems they’ve lost. 

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Not even a week after ‘Tenet’ premiered in the States, Warner Bros. delayed “Wonder Woman 1984” from an October premiere to Christmas Day. If “No Time to Die,” the latest installment in the James Bond franchise, abandons its November release date, that will leave the Fall theatrical slate practically empty until the release of “Dune” in late December. But “Tenet’s” failures shouldn’t be attributed to a lack of interest. Rather, it’s due to the fact that with both Los Angeles and New York theaters being closed since March; the U.S. ‘s two biggest markets are gone.

On theaters reopening, I’ll say this: it’s absolutely ridiculous that movie theaters have yet to open in New York state when casinos, bowling alleys and malls are all in business. I must say I felt safe in Jersey. Precautions were taken on the part of every employee; the lines were socially-distanced; the seating was socially-distanced and the theater capacity remained under 40%. It couldn’t have been safer. Even still, Governor Cuomo remains unconvinced.

Dr. Robert Lahita, Chairman of Medicine at St. Joseph’s Health in New Jersey said in an article for Vulture, “If you’re going to do phase four opening of essentially nonessential locales such as restaurants, gyms, tattoo parlors, and barbershops, I would think those would be of more risk than going to a movie theater, because of their inherent proximity to strangers.” 

“You’re 95% safe if you go to the movies [with all of the stated measures in place],” Dr. Lahita said. 

If barbershops — establishments where a barber touches your head and your hair while standing inches away from you — are able to re-open then movie theaters should be too. While chains like Regal and AMC are beginning to re-open some of their theaters, it’s the small independent theaters in Upstate New York and New York City that are suffering despite being ready to re-open. 

The New York government is killing theaters. Movie theaters have been struggling since before the pandemic and not helping them at this time is cruel. New York is such a big market and with independent theaters like Film Forum and IFC being closed since March, independent cinema finds itself relegated to virtual markets and streaming where less people will pay to watch it. 

I know Governor Cuomo has nothing but the safety of the New York people on his mind, but his determination to keep theaters closed is severely misplaced. He has the opportunity to offer a life-line and all he’s doing is putting the final nail in the coffin of theaters. Every day that theaters remain closed, their future in this country grows more and more dire. 

Governor Cuomo has said he considers theaters less essential than other businesses. Let me ask him: are gambling and bowling more essential than art? Are they more essential than  entertainment? People have been locked up in their houses for months. We must care about their well-being. Movie theaters grant us the ability to be transported, to sit down in a dark theater and forget about the world outside. 

If New York theaters lose “Tenet” and are not allowed to open their doors soon, they will begin to disappear. I implore you all to support theaters. They need it now more than ever. I cannot imagine a world without movie theaters and I don’t think many can. This is where you cast your vote. Let your voice be heard. A ticket purchased is a statement in support of theatrical exhibition.

Email Mas Bouzidi at [email protected]

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