What might moviegoing look like when theaters reopen after coronavirus shutdowns?

Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Many are watching curiously to see what happens later this month, when the comedy "The High Note," starring Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson and originally scheduled to open theatrically in May, opens as video on demand. Family films are one thing; Saturday night movie house date-night fare is another. What we haven't yet seen is any announcement of an action movie going VOD; it's hard to imagine a superhero movie, or a "Fast and Furious" installment, making its debut on the small screen.

But a dearth of franchise movies in theaters might be good news for art house films, said Beth Barrett, artistic director of the Seattle International Film Festival. Generally, films that debut during the annual festival populate art house screens around town for months afterward. This year, with SIFF canceled and theaters closed for several months, there'll be "a giant backlog of great films," Barrett said. "It's going to be a very interesting landscape, especially in terms of independent and art house films that may be looking for a toehold against a lot of those bigger blockbuster films. It's an advantage for the art houses in Seattle -- some of that content that so desperately wants to get out there will be able to find a home."

Barrett also noted that movie houses, unlike some other arts organizations such as live theater, can ramp up very quickly. "Once we know that it's safe for us to do so, and we've got measures in place to protect audience and staff, there will be a glut of films." She said SIFF is considering expanding the number of screenings in a day, to allow for lesser capacity.

"The landscape will be different and we'll have to figure out how to adapt," said Barrett's colleague, SIFF executive director Andrew Haines. "We need to be good social citizens and be socially responsive, and think about what that means, whether people feel comfortable coming out in a crowded theater."

Ark Lodge's McRae points to another time when a pandemic closed movie theaters: 1918, when the flu ravaged the country and most cinemas -- then, as now, a popular form of entertainment -- closed for two to six months. When movies reopened, the business changed: Led by industry mogul Adolph Zukor, the Hollywood studio system was established, taking control of exhibition from independent mom and pop theaters, like McRae's. Though broken up in 1948 in an antitrust decision, that system continues to impact cinema today.


Will the current closures likewise change moviegoing as we know it? (One tantalizing rumor making the rounds earlier this month: that Amazon might buy a coronavirus-weakened AMC.) Will the business undergo a dramatic change, relying more on stream-at-home options? I, and all of us who believe there's something special about gathering in the dark to see a movie larger than life, hope not, but none of us know for sure. And I don't know when I'll go to a theater again without worry -- but I do know, someday, I'll go. Because the movie theater experience is, quite literally, too big -- and too precious -- to lose.

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