When movie theaters closed March 2020 in response to COVID, we all thought it would be for a brief period of time and certainly not forever. Unfortunately that is the case for my neighborhood theaters which happen to be the Pacific Theater at the Americana and the Arclight in Hollywood, not to mention the legendary Cinerama Dome. Now all we have left is a nearly 100 year old theater, The Vista, which still hasn’t re-opened. It’s discouraging, especially when we were so close to being able to return to our old movie going habit.
Well before the pandemic, movie going was undergoing a generational shift. The lockdown only sped things up. The reality is most of us have been watching movies at home for a very long time, first on broadcast television, then cable, VOD and now streaming. It’s how many of us were introduced to film classics and how many parents were able to keep up their movie watching while their kids were young and scheduling a babysitter was either too expensive or too much of a hassle. There are movies that we’ve watched so many times that when clicking through the television guide, we can start in the middle because we’re so familiar with the story. The Shawshank Redemption is an excellent example because it is so widely available. When Netflix and Amazon entered the film business, the line between watching a film in the theater or at home became even more blurred.
This year we didn’t have much of a choice. It’s why the Motion Picture Academy made an exception to its rules and didn’t require theatrical exhibition to be eligible for awards consideration. It’s also why the opening dates for so many tentpole films were repeatedly moved to the future, most now scheduled for late 2021 or 2022. Studios also chose to release films on their streaming services or via premium video on demand instead of waiting for the perfect theater date. It is why independent films originally scheduled for theatrical release ended up playing on a virtual cinema, premium video on demand or a streaming service. Virtual cinema is how smaller movie chains and local theaters stayed alive. Ironically, Warner Bros’ decision to open their films via HBO Max and in theater at the same time, which caused an uproar among the exhibition industry, served to benefit them.
This Sunday marks the 93rd Annual Academy Awards, which will not only honor the excellence of the past year but celebrate the importance of movies in our lives. Nominees are among the most diverse ever. The show will hopefully remind us of the power of movie going as a communal experience. For those of us who are devoted Oscar fans, the viewing experience is indeed communal, from debating how best to fill out the annual Oscar pool ballot to post show discussions about who wore what, moving acceptance speeches, surprises and stupid presenter reparte. For those of us in the entertainment industry, it’s our Super Bowl.
Despite so many of the nominated films available for viewing via streaming services, audience awareness was not as high as one would expect. Maybe it’s because they were missing the excitement and buzz that typically comes from a theatrical premiere which often serves to eventize a film.
Now that theaters are beginning to open, studios are scheduling their films and vaccinations are becoming widely available, I’m hopeful the Oscars will serve as a reminder of an experience we’ve all been missing this past year. I remain optimistic that Pacific Theaters will be acquired by an organization that cares deeply about movies, but in the meantime will just have to travel further than usual to buy that bag of popcorn and settle in for a few hours of total escapism.