When Gov. Gavin Newsom issued California’s stay-at-home order on March 19, 2020, no one knew it would be almost a full year before the first movie theater would reopen in Los Angeles, heart of the film industry and North America’s largest box office market.
But the return of the cineplex doesn’t mean moviegoing is returning to a prepandemic “normal.” Theater capacity is limited, audiences and workers must follow new safety protocols, and many potential ticket buyers won’t be willing to step inside a theater until they are fully vaccinated.
A longer-lasting blow to moviegoing as we know it may have been dealt with Tuesday’s announcement that two of Disney’s biggest releases of 2021 — “Cruella” and Marvel’s “Black Widow” — will be available to view at home on Disney+ the same day the films open in theaters. This follows Warner Bros.’ earlier announcement that all of its 2021 movies will premiere simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. Much of this may change in 2022 — on Tuesday, Warner Bros. announced its films will screen next year exclusively at Cineworld’s Regal chain but for a shorter theatrical window than was standard in the past.
What will we lose if movie theaters can’t recover from the pandemic-forced shutdown? We got a few answers after we asked some of Hollywood’s most invested players — Oscar-nominated producers of this year’s best picture contenders — two questions: What are you most looking forward to about the return of the theatrical experience? And are you ready to go back?
“Judas and the Black Messiah,” producer, writer, director
“I’m dying to go back, quite frankly. I was one of those people who, New York was shut down but I went to New Jersey to see ‘Tenet’ and I went to New Jersey to see my film even though now it’s playing in New York and I’m going to definitely see it in New York with a bunch of strangers. But yeah, there’s no substitute. I embraced the day-and-date model with this film. I thought it was the right thing to do, given just the way the world was functioning. But I look forward to being able to watch a movie in a theater — there’s nothing like it.”
For America’s theater chains, this could finally be the start of what’s expected to be a long recovery for the moviegoing experience.
“I haven’t given up on it at all. I saw ‘Tenet’ in the theater; I’ve done AMC private rental in New Jersey a few times and I try and time it when the theaters aren’t crowded. New York art houses are opening back up: the Angelika, the Film Forum. So I’m going to figure out a way to feel safe doing that. It’s an important part of my life. Whether it’s an art-house film or a tentpole, they all benefit from sitting in the dark with a massive screen, turning off your phone and experiencing that.”
“Promising Young Woman,” producer, writer, director
“I’m in England, so all theaters are shut still and they won’t be open until it’s safe to go. So the moment they are safe to go in and they are open, I will go. And I will go every day and every night. Because I think the thing I miss most is having a single screen, not having a laptop or an iPad or phone there glowing kind of seductively next to me. When you’re watching a film at home, you have to just be extra diligent about not being tempted to look at your phone, but in the cinema it’s just completely an immersive experience, and it’s hard to be immersed when you’re home and your child’s in the background. It’s a different thing.
“There’s a certain thing about going to a place whose only point is to watch a movie. That is all you do at a movie theater, unless you’re 17 and you’re going with your boyfriend. And certainly with our film, it was made to be watched communally. It was made to utilize an audience’s reaction, and so many films are that way. And I think I miss other people, I even miss their popcorn rustling and their kind of whispering. I just miss other people’s reactions. ’Cause that’s what it’s about. You’re not really supposed to watch films on your own.”
Sacha Ben Harroche
“Sound of Metal,” producer
“I think I would be ready in a few weeks — not probably next week but probably next month. I’ll be careful, then. A cinema experience … we cannot change that. … It’s a unique experience, and I don’t think it’s gonna go anywhere. It might be transformed. … I can imagine smaller cinemas playing indie movies and big cinemas playing very entertaining blockbusters. But I don’t think movies are going anywhere. I just think that it’s going to be more diverse — we will have a different spectrum and way of experiencing movies and entertainment. But I’m just looking forward for theaters to try to fine-tune to this new world. … But yeah, I don’t think theaters are going anywhere. … Maybe I’m naive and too hopeful, but I want to believe that.”
“I am so excited. I do hope theater comes back stronger than ever. I think this year has shown the resiliency of people and the industry, and we’ve figured out ways to share films despite everything. We’ve tried to give people access to being able to see theatrical films in the comfort and safety of your own home, which was very important throughout this year. We finished this film and premiered it before all of this. During the post process, you’re watching it probably how everybody else is watching it now — I watched a cut on a TV. But then a couple of weeks later, we were like, let’s properly screen it to get the vibe. We played it in a screening room and projected it and I have a little sadness when it comes to that — that a lot of people haven’t been able to experience that.”
“I’m 75 and I’d still be going three times a week. I love to sit there and feed my face popcorn and watch everything. I always felt movie theaters were the cultural center of the universe. And since I grew up in the ’70s, I guess it really was. There is something about a 40-foot screen and sharing an experience with an audience, you know, the laughter, the sense of being with a group of people.”
“The Trial of the Chicago 7,” producer
“I’m looking forward to the collective experience of being with other people and feeling the power of cinema. Hearing laughter in a room, sharing tears, being moved, being frightened, being entertained. We’re social animals, we human beings, and cinema is a great art form for that collective experience.
“Just this last week, I had occasion to view a director’s cut of a film I’m making and was able to screen it in a large theater. There were only six people present, everybody was spread apart, but I was reminded immediately of the power of the art form, watching performance and story and character on a big screen in a big place. I was instantly reminded of the beauty of cinema and how much I miss the big screen.”
“The Father,” producer
“Seeing people! Being with people! All of those things. We go to the cinema a lot, and it is that communal experience. Obviously it’s nice to sit down sometimes without people crunching popcorn. But I’ve even missed that. [And on ugly crying with strangers in a movie theater?] My wife will attest: We went to a very small screening of Anthony Hopkins in ‘Shadowlands,’ and I could hear her next to me sobbing and sobbing. The lights came up and there was mascara almost down to her toes, she cried so much. It’s Hopkins! If you watch Olivia [Colman] on the screen [in ‘The Father’], we were cursing him all the time because she’d be crying on the set. She’d look around and I’d be crying behind the camera; he used to get us every time. But that’s all part of the experience, isn’t it? Embarrassing sniffling in theaters.”
Times staff writers Christi Carras, Amy Kaufman, Sonaiya Kelley, Mark Olsen, Michael Ordoña, Josh Rottenberg, Glenn Whipp and Jen Yamato contributed to this report.