Sacramento’s descent into the purple tier forced movie theaters to again close their doors this past fall. And while I know the move was essential, I can’t help but worry that many of those doors may remain shut forever.
Movie theaters have always been an escape for me. Maybe it started in 1976 during a heat wave in Los Angeles, when my mother and I sat through the three-hourlong classic “The Sound of Music”— twice. I could not peel my 6-year-old eyes away from Julie Andrews cavorting with her guitar in her nunnery streetwear or leading her charges in Do-Re-Mi wearing (gasp!) old curtains. Mom and I fled to that movie theater/icebox from our small, non-airconditioned apartment; she’d packed us lunch and dinner before we’d sped off in her Chevy Malibu. In between showtimes, we stayed in the empty theater while the ushers maneuvered around us with their push brooms, me gleefully downing Jordan Almonds (the only candy a health nut 1970s mom would permit).
After “The Sound of Music” there was “Jerry Maguire” at a theater in Santa Monica, one of my besties and me holding onto each other for support during the scene where Tom Cruise first takes his shirt off. Watching “Pulp Fiction” with my dad in Monterey, witnessing a reinvention in filmmaking splatter across the screen in real time. And finally, years after I’d moved to Sacramento, taking in “Ladybird” with my teen daughter at The Tower Theatre, tears of joy and recognition dripping down our cheeks. These were not just movie experiences—they were moviegoing experiences, made better by the going. And by the people I went there with.
Right now, the movie theater business is in real trouble—and some industry experts think it could be terminal. The National Association of Theater Owners has asked Congress to pass a relief package to help theaters survive the pandemic crisis, citing that 93% of theaters sustained 75% in losses and might not make it to 2021 without assistance.
There is the opinion that movie theaters are no longer needed. With streaming, content abounds, minus the sticky floors and overpriced concessions. But take a moment and think about the best movie you’ve seen. Where were you? At home on the couch? Or in a dark, air-conditioned theater with that big, overpriced buttery box of popcorn on your lap, your favorite people by your side and an audience of strangers surrounding you, making the funniest scenes even more so with their collective swell of laughter? When that best movie ever was over, did you just click off the TV, or were you standing with those strangers, applauding the dark screen, whistles emanating from every corner of the theater?
Since 1905, when the first modern movie theater opened in Pittsburgh and hundreds of people lined up and paid a nickel to see a 15-minute show, cinemas have been where families could escape for some relatively affordable entertainment and occasionally to take flight somewhere magical together. For the past hundred years, movie theaters have also been a cultural touchstone, where Americans come to witness the same story: to laugh, cry and be scared in community—something we simply cannot do from our individual living rooms. As 2020 polarized us in politics, socially distanced us with a pandemic and challenged us to bring equity to all, we need to save the places where we can gather, share our stories, embrace our diversity and realize how very much we still have in common.
When it’s safe for the world to open up again, I hope our theaters will be there to receive us. I know I will be first in line to buy a ticket.