Film enthusiast and musician Gordon Inman shares his thoughts on the future of theaters during COVID-19
NOTE: Most of this article was written before the events of June 2020 and its author has entrusted it into the care of Scenic Trend’s editor with the understanding that it should be posted at a more appropriate time. While the author mourns for the permanent changes occurring to the consumption and distribution of the seventh art, he wishes to clarify that the senseless loss of human life and the unceremonious attack upon peaceful protestors (both at the hands of those sworn to protect) naturally take priority over the inanimate.
A personal anecdote: On the afternoon of February 26th, 2020, my wife and I drove from Chattanooga to Memphis to catch the 8:00 PM Central Time showing of Pedro Costa’s award-winning 2019 film, Vitalina Varela. This showing was one of only about a dozen in the continental U.S., and one of only two in the Southeast. A few decades ago, the winner of one of the four major European festivals (in this case, Locarno’s Golden Leopard) would likely have secured a limited U.S. release including a week’s run in a Chattanooga theater. In 2020 the single event screening we attended didn’t quite sell out.
An international tragedy: On February 27th, 2020, the entire writing and editing staff of Cahiers du Cinema resigned in protest of the publication’s recent sale to a group of film producers and tech tycoons. The sale of the magazine (which has been one of only a few true cornerstones of film criticism since its conception in 1951) made it very likely that the publication’s spiritual end was near, and the exit of its remaining creative team solidified this.
End of a local era: On May 30th, 2020, the owner of the Palace Theater announced that it was yet another local business casualty of the COVID economy, marking the end of Chattanooga’s short-lived 21st Century arthouse theater scene. (The history of the Cinerama followed by both incarnations of the Palace Picture House/Palace Theater could be the subject of their own article.)
A national commercial crisis: As of this writing, AMC plans to reopen their theaters in July of 2020, but their fate was also a question mark a few months ago. Alamo Drafthouse, a legendary theater chain mostly and originally based in Texas, is in deeper trouble, having closed all locations in March with no official plan for reopening. (Drafthouse gained notoriety early in the smartphone era by implementing a few rules of etiquette in their theaters including keeping phones in pockets, which in 2020 appears to qualify as “oppression.”)
The normalcy-altering events of the first half of 2020 have uncovered a truth that many of the cinephiliac persuasion have been unwilling to admit for ten years: that while film has been the most consumed form of entertainment since it took the mantle from radio, those days are over. (For those wondering aloud if this is Avatar’s fault, yes it absolutely is.*) This is not necessarily a bad thing; all forms of staged drama (including opera) have had their eras and still have devoted audiences and practitioners, as well as the production of new work annually. The ‘arthouse’ quality of independent films in America has been flourishing in the 21st century, even if the box office receipts don’t show it. Thanks to streaming, not every one of these films and filmmakers even need an A24- or Neon-level distributor to make their investors’ money back. As a matter of fact, Grasshopper Films, the distribution company for Vitalina Varela, made the film available to rent online shortly after the COVID closures began in March (meaning our trek to Memphis may not be a necessity in the future).
In the meantime and while new releases are stalled or straight to stream, there has never been a better time to embrace the entirety of film history than now. Once it’s a little safer to congregate with friends and loved ones, movie nights are set to make a major comeback. I know I’ll absolutely be hosting them in my home. It was mentioned early in the isolation timeline that drive-in theaters could make a powerful comeback, although I can only imagine the owner of the long-gone Dunlap Drive-In Theater is somewhere screaming into a pillow and wondering why we all didn’t help keep it afloat before a pandemic hit. There is also the wonderful tradition of museum screenings: while they ended before my time, I’ve heard wonderful stories of the Hunter Museum holding screenings of the 1960s and 1970s European Art House classics. Currently, those located in the Chattanooga area have a wonderful option already in the ‘museum screening’ spirit: The Heritage House in East Brainerd holds regular themed screenings curated by my friend Kris Jones and assuming the world is a little less on fire by January 21st, 2021, I’ll be introducing Jim Jarmusch’s second film Stranger Than Paradise (which incidentally won the Golden Leopard just like Vitalina Varela) and would love to see everyone there.
*While two animated hits from 2009, Laika Studios’ inaugural feature Coraline and Pixar’s Up, were both released with 3D options, it is generally argued that James Cameron’s Avatar induced the 21st-century 3D craze. Those who saw Avatar during its theatrical run (which includes, statistically, everyone reading this footnote) may remember that in December of 2009 and the first quarter of 2010 screenings of the blue movie comprised over half the capacity of nearly every mainstream cineplex, and it was understood at the time that much of the reason for this was to comfortably allow both 2D and 3D options. For the next five years, nearly every blockbuster allowed the same option and took up extra screen space in theaters while quietly edging out commercial dramas, independent features, etc. When the 3D craze died out, the non-blockbuster options generally did not return except through boutique distribution companies like A24 and Neon.