Movie theatres were allowed to open in Toronto this past Friday, July 31st. People have been anticipating the ability to go into restaurants and sit down (albeit with social distancing protocols) and there are, no doubt, lines of gym rats ready to enter their favourite exercise facilities (both of these activities were also finally allowed in Toronto this past Friday). But, I don’t think people are eager to go see movies just yet. My friends certainly aren’t.
I’m of a divided mind. On the one hand, prior to the pandemic, going to see movies, both new and repertory, was a strong component of my life. I’d sometimes go see two back-to-back in order to save time – like most other people who write, I have another day job that often necessitates me taking work home and finding time to catch new releases can be hard. During my undergrad and youth, I built a strong component of my identity around being an avid filmgoer. I didn’t own a VCR or DVD player for many many years and preferred to see my favourite films at repertory theatres. I sincerely believed the experience of watching a film print in a theatre with light streaming through celluloid is vastly different (and superior) to watching that same movie at home.
When the pandemic hit, I got a TV subscription which brought me a plethora of movies and TV shows. It was the media equivalent to suddenly hoarding toilet paper and canned goods. I have more digital content at my beckoning than I could ever hope to watch, so why go back to the movie theatre? Especially if it’s not safe and puts one at more risk of contracting COVID-19? This seems to be the way the general population thinks – dining out is a social experience that cannot be replicated in the home but watching digital content at home is an acceptable substitute to going out to the movies.
I decided to go on the first day that the theatres opened because I figured there would be fewer people and the risk would be lower since the viral load wouldn’t have had time to build up yet. Of the theatres in the downtown Toronto area, only one was showing movies, so I went there. A fairly modern Cineplex, only some of their many screens were put to use; they were screening some movies held over from before the pandemic like Birds of Prey and The Invisible Man, they had some fan favourites on the IMAX screen (Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight trilogy), and they had a new Canadian film by Jay Baruchel, Random Acts of Violence. Guess which one I went to see?
The desk which normally sold movie tickets was closed and we were directed to the snack area to buy our ticket. Even that counter only had one employee. There seemed to be no other staff around and I think I could literally have just walked into a screening room without anyone stopping me if I wanted. A couple of elderly, eccentric customers shuffled through the lobby. At the snack counter, I asked the employee how they were establishing social distancing protocols. She said that the maximum number of patrons in a movie was to be twenty-five. You had to pick a seat from the ones that were allowed and the allowed seats were distanced far apart. I asked whether the movies had been selling out and she vehemently shook her head to indicate ‘no.’ All the movie prices were $5, including the IMAX screening of The Dark Knight. I wasn’t so keen on seeing that movie but inquired as to availability and found it had sold out, but not because all twenty-five seats were occupied. The twenty-five seats were divided into sets of two but many of the patrons were there on their own so nobody else could sit in or buy a ticket for the seat beside them.
I bought a ticket for Random Acts of Violence and by the time the movie began, there were four people in the theatre including myself — me, another guy who had come by himself and a couple — we were all far apart. I’d say it was glorious if it wasn’t so eerie. We all wore masks. Everybody was appropriately quiet during the screening, including the couple, though it was a horror movie. Prior to the closures, movies had become akin to a noisy night out as opposed to the kind of hushed viewing that once was common in movie theatres; people would talk, put their feet up on the backs of seats, eat loudly, and scroll through their smartphones. Someone once said to me that now there is no distinction between watching a movie at home and seeing one in the theatre; it’s just a question of size. Indeed, some home entertainment systems boast TV’s that aren’t much smaller than the smallest movie screens. So, I looked forward to being able to watch a film all the way through without distractions.
However, since fear about the pandemic might be something that’s firmly established itself into the collective unconscious, could that fear now run interference and impede enjoyment of a movie in the same way that other people’s chatter once did? I don’t know. I did find my mind straying more than it otherwise might have, but this might be due to the relative novelty of the experience or perhaps the fractious state of mind after being in lockdown for so long. Shortly after the start of the movie, a Cineplex employee came in and mysteriously looked over a laminated seating chart and examined seats. Shortly before the end of the movie, another employee came in to do the same. Were they checking to see that people were social distancing? That they were sitting in their assigned seats? Who knows? These fears might gently pull at you while you try and engage an old familiar activity under unfamiliar circumstances.
Without a crowd, you also don’t have the energy that once existed during opening weekend for a blockbuster movie – the abandon and reaction that comes with a hero’s narrow escape or a destructive event on screen are now gone. I think that the pandemic, even if there is no second wave/shutdown, has changed things fundamentally. More people continuing to work from home is an obvious example. Might moviegoing be another area that falls prey to an abrupt change? If general attitudes towards the art of cinema are drifting towards regarding it as a generalized form of entertainment, people are not going to see much virtue in having to go to the theatre to see a film. The gap between movie releases and streaming availability has gotten much shorter. This is unfortunate as more people are making movies than ever before – in an odd way, these factors serve to devalue the appeal of going to see a film in the theatre and the pandemic may have provided a destructive catalyst. Here in Toronto, Ontario Place brought back the drive-in as its solution to COVID concerns and maybe this trend will pick up. Or perhaps moviegoing will have to become something new in order to put bums in seats again. It’s no coincidence that popular movies have had to rely on ever increasing CGI or 3D visual effects in order to draw big box office numbers – maybe this is the final push necessary to make VR or true 3D/4D experiences a viable reality in theatres.
I’m unsure, and I’m still trying to figure out what this means for me. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, going to the cinema had been a significant part of my life and identity. However, I had struggled with the distracting behaviour that became the norm at screenings (even the arty TIFF Lightbox started allowing food and drink inside their theatres as a way to draw crowds) and these two forces have pushed and pulled over the years. Also, as one grows older and tries to juggle movie watching with work commitments, being able to watch something at home piecemeal, on demand, free from other people’s chatter, and get up to go to the bathroom or even (heavens forbid!) text or answer the phone, home viewing becomes more appealing. Gone is that idea of the film as an experience, like watching a play, shutting out the world and absorbing yourself in a cinematic experience projected at heroic scale in a darkened temple. Gone is that sense of myth and mystery existing outside of everyday time.
I wonder if people will react differently to movie theatres opening depending upon where they live? So many other things are regional. Parts of the US have famously or infamously defied COVID protocols and downplayed the threat of the virus. Canadians are a bit more cautious on the whole but I live in the downtown core of Toronto, and there are many people here who don’t care about social distancing. Youth and younger adults seem to roam about, not really taking care to distance themselves from others. That being said, I don’t think they’re going to flood into the theatres – as it’s summer, they’re going to favour parks, hangouts, and each other’s houses. Besides, the question of viewing and distribution is inevitably tied to the system of production – how are movies going to be made now that the virus is a viable threat? That is a whole other kettle of fish entirely.