Over Memorial Day weekend, I had a chance to go to my local theater to watch the Disney live action Cruella movie. While this was not the first movie I’ve seen in a theater since the COVID shutdown in March 2020, it was a special moment, because this was the first time that going to the movies actually felt a little bit normal.
The theater lobby wasn’t overly crowded, but it was filled with more people I’d seen at the theater in over a year. There was actually a line to get popcorn, and when I walked into the auditorium for my screening, about 75% of the seats were filled. Throughout the movie, I could hear other people chuckling and reacting to the movie. It was strange experiencing a movie with a group of people again — but it was strange in a good way.
The whole experience made me emotional in a way I wasn’t prepared for. To be clear, this article isn’t actually going to be a review of Cruella (even though it was a fun movie, and I do recommend it). Rather, this is my love letter to the whole movie theater experience, and my reflections on just how much I missed all of this.
Not everyone prefers to experience entertainment in a movie theater, and that’s totally fine. This article is not meant to shame you or somehow guilt you into going back to a theater if that’s not your preference. I’m actually excited to see how studios have developed a hybrid model that allows people to choose whether they want to experience a blockbuster movie at home or at the theater on the big screen. Anything that promotes greater accessibility to content is a good thing.
Yet for me, there’s no substitute for watching a blockbuster movie on the biggest screen possible. The experience starts as soon as you walk through the door into the theater. You can smell the warm buttery scent of movie theater popcorn. You can hear people chattering in the lobby, as they talk about what movie they’re going to see. You walk into the auditorium and find your seat — and if you’re like me, you know just what the perfect spot in the auditorium is. I’ve visited my local theater so many times I actually have my favorite seats memorized: it’s J24 for the IMAX screen and D14 for the smaller screen with recliners.
When the lights go down, you know it’s preview time. This is actually one of my favorite parts of the movie-going experience. I get extra excited when there’s a trailer for a movie I’m really hyped about, and it’s fun to discover a movie you haven’t heard about but after seeing the trailer it immediately lands on your “must watch” list.
Then, it’s finally showtime. If the movie is good, you walk out of the theater feeling buzzed. You can’t wait to talk to your friends about it, or to jump online and see what other fans are saying. And even if the movie doesn’t quite live up to your hopes for it, well, at least you got out of the house!
When I watch a movie at home, it’s easy to get distracted. I glance down at texts on my phone, or I feel the nagging pressure to go address that never-ending to do list. But when I go to the movies, for about two hours or so, I actually can disconnect, relax, and get totally immersed in another world. I know going to the theater is often more expensive than watching a movie at home, but programs like AMC’s A-List subscription service do make it a little more affordable.
When I’m feeling sad or stressed or discouraged, it’s amazing how much a simple trip to the movie theater lifts my spirits. If it’s a good movie, I feel creatively inspired again, and I get a little boost of energy that carries me through the rest of the day.
I still worry about the future longevity of movie theaters, because I don’t know how the pandemic will or will not impact people’s long-term moviegoing habits. My gut feeling is, it will take years to get back to the glory days of ridiculously successful box office premieres like The Force Awakens or Avengers: Endgame (if we ever get back there at all). Some people may decide to use streaming exclusively to experience content. Or post-COVID, people may be desperate to get out and see a blockbuster on a big screen again. I just don’t know.
Whatever happens, I hope there will always be a place in our communities for movie theaters. When a movie like Dune comes out this fall, I want to be able to see it with other fans on opening night who are just as excited as I am.