I think it’s time to break-up with movie theaters. We had a good run, but we just want different things at this point. We’ve grown apart these last few months and, in my time spent at home, I’ve come to realize just how much I don’t ache, pine, or yearn to return to a movie theater ever again the way others might. This realization has become fully formed at the same time I, along with other prospective moviegoers, face a new kind of choice: See the much delayed New Mutants in theaters or spend $30 to watch Disney’s live-action Mulan at home.
To be fair, this isn’t necessarily an “if you do one, you can’t do the other” kind of situation. There are, however, some interesting circumstances around these releases that leave the venue in which you see them the most important deciding factor. Both are big tentpole movies with enthusiastic fanbases ready to see the finished product. Both movies have faced varying degrees of release date delays, which only heightens our curiosity and eagerness to see them. Crucially, these movies are set to arrive in a year which has been so deeply deprived of new releases that folks will be eager to check them out. And sure, your money will be filling the Disney coffers and subtly reminding you that perhaps one company having a majority stake in entertainment is a bad thing, but that’s a discussion for another time.
This particular new release dilemma is one only the hellscape that is 2020 could have manufactured and one which we here in Film Land (trademark pending) will be watching closely. How New Mutants will fare at the box office and how Mulan will fare with at-home viewers, including box office receipts and any reactions to the viewing experience in each environment, will set the tone for discussions we have going forward about the new normal for watching new releases.
For me, the choice is simple: I am going to stay at home and give Mulan my money and attention. I am also very keen to see New Mutants, but there is nothing at this point in time that could convince me to leave my home bubble right now. Not when hundreds of Americans are still dying from COVID-19, nor when any given movie theater chain can ensure their new health and safety measures are being enforced and followed at all times. The risk is far too great. Given the choice between spending $30 to stay at home and watch at my preferred comfort level or use gas to get to the movie theater where I pay for a ticket and incur the hidden, non-monetary cost of anxiety incurred by the constant fear of potential exposure to COVID-19, I’m going to stay at home every single time. I’m even more confident this is the right decision given the fact we still do not confidently know when a safe vaccine will be available or if we will be reasonably free of COVID-19. Similarly, my trust in my fellow Americans to be good and decent by following good health and safety behaviors has completely eroded. When it comes to the moviegoing experience, there is currently nothing for me beyond my front door that I am aching to participate in, nor will I mourn the absence of in my life.
We’ve romanticized the moviegoing experience to the point that seeing a movie in theaters is still the gold standard for the viewing experience. Depending on who you talk to, you may be met with a strongly-worded comment about the misstep in seeing a movie anywhere other than a theater, especially if it’s a new release. To see it anywhere else may be sacrilege to some. Then again, streaming a movie of home means those who do not have the privilege or access to a movie theater are afforded the same opportunity to see a new movie and engage with pop culture. On this, I remain in favor of the equal opportunities provided by the latter option.
The pandemic has only amplified the worst aspects of the moviegoing experience in the 21st century. The pleasure of seeing a movie in a theater has been on the decline for some time now and we’ve been litigating that decline for years. To wit, the rise in recliner-like seating in some theaters has allowed viewers to get mighty comfy while in the presence of strangers and, in some cases, slip off their shoes and hunker down. The fluorescent glow of a mobile phone has been a plague to moviegoers for even longer. Chances are good that you or someone you know has a real kicker about that one asshole who spent more time scrolling through Facebook than watching an actual movie while light from their phone interfered with what was onscreen. (Do you have some time? I have a few stories for ya.)
And if it’s not technology, it’s the fires of capitalism demanding we spend more on tickets and concessions and special theatrical events so we can keep the movie theater, a brick-and-mortar location we’ve put on a pedestal for no solidly discernible reason, alive. I’m also well aware the beast of capitalism demands to be fed when it comes to renting a movie at home. But again, if it’s about choosing where to spend my precious dollars given every circumstance attached to that purchase, watching from home wins 11 out of 10 times.
Some will argue movies are made to be seen in theaters, that it’s a near-catastrophic detriment to the art form to not show a movie in a theater first or at all. I’m just not of the mindset that where you view a movie will affect your opinion of it. I have had just as good a time watching a movie at home as I have in the theater or outdoor cinema events. Rewatching a movie at home, sometimes after the first watch in a theater, has offered the opportunity to reconsider it, focus on a different aspect, and gain a new appreciation (or dislike!) for what’s onscreen.
Others will argue If we don’t keep going to movie theaters, then there will be ripple effects in decisions on which movies get made, how they are made, and later, how they’re distributed. Then again, movies and moviegoing are still young. We’ve evolved far beyond where we began in the 1890s, both in terms of making a movie and showing it. We can re-evaluate and evolve. There is nothing stopping us from shifting toward a PVOD-favored model of distribution. The industry is already in full re-evaluation mode right now. Streaming services are already posing a massive threat, so to speak, to the moviegoing experience. Exercises in mixing up the streaming experience (cough Quibi cough cough) are already being sent to market. Not going to a movie theater will not put an end to the making, distribution, and consumption of movies.
Before I exit stage left and let you sit with this, we should address what we lose when we stream from home. I know it might sound like I’m here, comfy as you please, advocating for at-home viewing as if it’s the one true path; this is also not the case. There are losses to be had when we choose to watch a movie from home either by ourselves, with a companion, or a small group. The biggest loss is the communal feeling of the movie theater experience. For every story about a rogue mobile phone’s light killing the mood, you probably have a story about you and your fellow theatergoers cheering, screaming, gasping, or crying in unison as the full weight of a moment envelopes you. Avengers: Endgame had this effect on theaters across the country, mine included, and the videos of certain moments still put me right there, happy tears poking at my eyes. There’s also the loss of a large degree of transparency when you move from a theatrical exhibitor to a streamer or VOD service. The latter keeps a tighter grip on data which could, for example, influence what movies will be offered in the future and what projects and from which creative voices will get greenlit. I have nothing to offer to these valid losses (there are no doubt even more I’m not mentioning here) other than acknowledgment these are valid fears.
Every time I think about this debate — movie theater vs. at-home viewing — I recall a particularly notable moment on the HBO limited series Years and Years. Set in the near future, the show spins an alternate timeline out from our own current situation and carefully examines possible outcomes from the decisions we as a global population are making today. In one scene early on, a young girl casually remarks she and her boyfriend will be upstairs because they don’t want to miss the premiere of Guardians of the Galaxy 5. While I love contemplating what a fifth Guardians movie would even be, I more love the idea of setting up shop at home and watching a new movie from the comfort of my own home. They were definitely onto something with that.
Allie Gemmill is the Weekend Contributing Editor for Collider. You can follow them on Twitter @_matineeidle.