On Going Back to the Movies

It has been an interesting 21 months. The world around us has changed and we’ve been cooped up in our homes while a pandemic rages outside like Godzilla taking a stroll in Tokyo. I spent a lot of time thinking about—or lamenting—the way COVID-19 has altered how we experience films. The adverse effects of the pandemic on the moviegoing experience is low on the totem pole; that being said, I do believe “going to the movies” is an important aspect of popular American culture. It is such a significant ritual for some of us that we even have traditions relating to concessions (I personally always get a Cherry Coke and Sour Patch Kids).


Throughout the pandemic, going to the movies was something I desperately missed. I missed walking into a perfectly air-conditioned auditorium and being transfixed by the sensory overload of a crisp cinematic display and sonorous speakers. There is something so beautiful about being in a dark theater and just being so immersed it feels as if nothing else is happening in the universe, that you have fallen through the screen.


While access to a myriad of streaming and renting services has radically democratized the public’s access to films, seeing films on the big screen remains the paramount experience. Not only because it is a place where you can see movies in their highest fidelity, but also because it is a communal experience. I was reminded of this collective experience last month when I was finally able to see The Green Knight in theaters. I walked out of the auditorium, greeted by a group of my fellow moviegoers and ushers talking about the film. I walked over to join them and a middle-aged gentleman promptly stated, “that movie (expletive) sucked (expletive)!,” which immediately filled me with joy and amusement; I missed hearing the sound of people’s opinions as opposed to bad-faith Twitter discourse (Tenet haters, I’m looking at you). It was refreshing to talk with other people about our communal and yet different perspectives of the film we just experienced.


I had an interesting conversation with my uncle about moviegoing in relation to Dunkirk (2017) and 1917 (2019). He generally dislikes going to the movies but was compelled to see these films on the big screen. I talked about how touching and exciting it was to see those movies with other people, interacting with the film as a collective (being tense, cheering, etc.), and my uncle responded saying that behavior is the exact reason why he hates going to the movies. There are definitely films where near-complete silence is needed, but when it comes to blockbusters, it’s much more enthralling when the audience operates as an excited collective. Don’t get me wrong, I have had some god-awful theater experiences; whether it be people on their phones, eating obnoxiously, or threatening ushers who politely ask them to be quiet—people can be atrocious. However, those experiences make up a small percentage of my trips to the theaters. The vast majority of people want to see movies to be entertained, and collective participation in theaters is a huge part of this.


One thing that annoyed me during lockdown was the increase in op-eds and think pieces declaring COVID would be the nail in the coffin for cinemas. I thought then and still believe that this is nonsense. Considering how the box office numbers have continued to improve since the end of last year, I am left to believe it is purely a matter of millions of Americans waiting for it to be safer to be in theaters. I think the relative success of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings exemplifies this; while its domestic gross (over 180 million dollars at the time of writing) would be considered a major disappointment for a Marvel movie during non-COVID times, it is a resounding success when considering the state of the box office in 2020. When my roommates and I went to see Shang-Chi, the theater was packed with apprehensive but excited moviegoers.


The pandemic is far from over and people have every right to feel trepidation towards going to movie theaters. That being said, when this is all over, I am confident that going to the movies will return to its place in our country’s culture.


Image courtesy of Max Zhang

Michael Oross is a senior in the College studying Film Studies and English