Theaters Are Ready for a Comeback, but There’s Something Missing in the Message — Analysis

The big screen is back, but what's it going to show to make the trip worthwhile?
New York City's Radio City Music Hall, Tuesday, May 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Radio City Music Hall

On May 17, one day before most of New York City businesses reopened at 100 percent capacity, Governor Andrew Cuomo dropped some film festival news on Twitter. “We welcome back the arts with the @Tribeca Festival this June,” he wrote. “It will be the first in-person film festival to take place in North America since before COVID. On 6/19 Radio City Music Hall will host the festival’s Closing Night: 100% vaccinated, full capacity & no masks.”

The notion of Radio City’s 6,000-plus seats filling up with unmasked audiences in one month’s time was jolting, but Cuomo’s declaration had some curious blind spots. For one thing, Tribeca is far from the “the first in-person film festival to take place in North America,” let alone New York. New Directors/New Films, co-hosted by Film at Lincoln Center and MOMA, took that mantle in March; across the country, in-person film festivals have been taking place throughout the pandemic, including regional efforts like the Florida Film Festival and the Micheaux International Film Festival in Los Angeles.

Cuomo’s statement was also peculiar because it put the cart before the horse: We still don’t know what will serve as Tribeca’s closing-night film. So far, the event’s selling point is a crowded audience for the big screen, not whatever ends up projected on it.

There’s a certain logic to the assumption that audiences are eager to gather again in crowded areas without fear of viral droplets. But as the potential to keep the moviegoing experience alive returns to American culture, the messaging seems to ignore the point that the movies have to make the experience worthwhile. At the recent “The Big Screen is Back” event hosted by a range of exhibition and Hollywood forces in L.A. this past week, Arnold Schwarzenegger repeated the same fallacy: “You need the big screen,” he told the crowd. “If you have the movie and you don’t have the theaters, then you have nothing.”

Let’s consider the argument. You have the movie. Which movie? Is it a mid-sized drama with stars, or a ginormous blockbuster overloaded with explosions? Is it a promising vision from a fresh-faced newcomer or some genre-bending experiment in style and tone? Does it deliver on a tried-and-true formula or break all the rules?

More importantly: Is it any good?

The question of quality has been largely underserved in a year of pandemic panic about exhibition’s future. Sure, “Tenet” might have been better handled with a collapsed theatrical window in 2020 or holding off for a 2021 release. But “Tenet” did not excite moviegoers about the prospects of returning to cinema, in part, because it was Christopher Nolan’s least satisfying movie: a brain pretzel that, unlike “Inception,” did not reward the labor demanded by its labyrinthine paths, and without sufficient action thrills to distract from its shortcomings. Certainly a handful of the bigger summer movies on the docket for the weeks ahead, “F9” chief among them, stand a good chance at stimulating audience turnout even if they’re awful. But these are anomalies: The studios can’t churn out a new one every week.

Theaters reopen within the confines of a dramatically different landscape than the one they left last year. AT&T’s recent decision to toss off WarnerMedia to a murky new entity formed with Discovery reminded everyone that billions of dollars aren’t enough to figure out the business of moving images, and while content may be king, media companies aren’t quite sure if they’re still the star. June will mark the first edition of Tribeca in which “Film” is not part of its moniker. “Film is always at the heart of everything we do and certainly the majority of our programming is film,” Tribeca Enterprises CEO Jane Rosenthal told IndieWire at a recent press day. “But for years, we have been adding other creative platforms and other creative storytellers that all overlap.”

The driving force of the “Tribeca Festival” is just that: a physical presence with curated experiences. Trust the brand and it might be worth the price of admission. To that end, it may be enough for the festival to let the governor spread the good news about a big-screen closing night event; whatever they show there better be good.

Outside of the festival context, moviegoing doesn’t have that luxury. The selling point of the “Big Screen is Back” turns on the assumption that the theatrical experience justifies the journey no matter what, and everyone knows that’s not the case. Some storytelling works just fine on the small screen, and some big-screen stories aren’t worth telling in the first place. If the big screen is worth saving — and many of us believe it is — the movies projected onto it need to play a central role in the argument for its survival.

By the time the Radio City event comes around in June, New Yorkers will have been reacquainted with moviegoing for many months. My own experiences have ranged from experiencing the expert cringe-comedy of “Shiva Baby” with a laughing crowd at the Nitehawk in Williamsburg to delighting in F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” at the Museum of the Moving Image. These experiences have been worthwhile because the movies benefit from the precise focus mandated by the theatrical context: It draws you into the nuances of storytelling and cinematic devices that would be harder to perceive on the smaller screen with distractions. Consider the difference between blasting a symphony at home and watching it on the stage: Great art demands a rapt audience.

Also: Sometimes it’s fun! Big-screen movies can be a blast unique to the format that brings them into the world. This past week, journalists saw the return of all-media screenings for major studio fare. Watching “A Quiet Place II,” which rehashes much about the original alien invasion thriller, it was clear that the visceral nature of its constant jump scares would feel a lot hokier on a home entertainment system. But in the Dolby Theater of AMC Lincoln Square, they were just hokey enough. “A Quiet Place II” won’t save theaters, but it’s one solid example of how to keep the experience relevant. Theatrical experiences should feel transportive — either viscerally or emotionally — because without that, they’re just glowing light on a screen, and we’ve got plenty of that at home.

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