“Only in Theaters” Is a Threat

Despite a literal plague, film distribution, like the rest of the world, refuses to change

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“Only in Theaters” Is a Threat

Well, here we are, still.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly two years ago, I felt a kind of communal fear that I don’t think I’ve ever felt before, even more than after things like 9/11 or Columbine, or the other senseless and preventable tragedies that Americans have been conditioned to simply put up with because it makes somebody somewhere some money.

But, there was a glimmer of hope in there, too. It quickly became evident that everything about our society from the top down simply could no longer function the same way. Every moral weakness—from the way we treat teachers and nurses and fast food delivery drivers to the insistence on burning dead dinosaurs to power steel cages to drive us to office buildings with phones and internet we can just as readily use at home—was revealed in the glaring spotlight of the pandemic. Surely, a lot of us thought as we watched Netflix with a thermometer and a box of sanitary wipes within arm’s reach, surely this is going to be the thing that gets modern life on track to making some kind of sense.

Into the third year of the global pandemic, the answer is, apparently, “Nah.”

The two chief differences in our pandemic dynamics when you look at the world of today and compare it to the world of last year—the fact that we have a lifesaving vaccine and the fact that a combination of grade-schoolers being too young and conservative Americans being too stubborn to take it—evidently cancel one another out, and we are now worse than right back where we started. When it all began, people tried to be careful, and now they manifestly do not. I honeymooned with my wife in July, just as the Delta variant was taking hold: All along Route 66, nobody was wearing a mask. The daily deluge of emails from our children’s schools, which absolutely, by order of the State Board of Education REFUSE to include a remote learning option, now include reports on how many of their classmates have caught the coronavirus. Our kids report classmates and—yes—teachers who don’t even pay lip service to safety protocols and face no meaningful discipline. My youngest, my 11-year-old daughter, still cannot be vaccinated as of this writing. Every day I send her to school is the day she might catch the plague.

With all of this irresponsibility, all this death circling around, it can seem petty to fixate on movie theaters and film distribution as something to complain about. I get that. But I also still blame theaters and major studios for their insistence on business-as-usual during this plague, and I still will not be going to see films at indoor venues, long months after this should have been over. And as news items mount that quote directors or stars arguing for the sanctity of the theatrical experience, as more ads thunderingly declare that a movie is available “Only in Theaters,” the resignation and despair I feel in month 19 or 20 of this new way of life—which we should not need to be living—has curdled into rage.

I don’t know how else to express it when, for instance, Patty Jenkins and others sit down for an interview with the Los Angeles Times and mostly speak of the issue of day-and-date streaming as an artistic and financial concern, as if the pandemic is in the rearview mirror when it is not, because even vaccinated people can get infections and may still be able to spread them to others.

“Only in Theaters” is not a promise or a friendly reminder anymore: It’s a forceful shove, one that says “Stop being careful. Stop caring about the people who have poor immune responses, or legitimate age or allergic factors that prevent them from being vaccinated, or the fact that abandoning all caution is precisely what gave rise to the Delta variant in the first place. Why are you being a killjoy?”

There are reasons beyond just pretentions to artistic integrity why, say, Jenkins or Denis Villeneuve argue that the best way and certainly the first way to experience their films should be in theaters. Old Hollywood distribution models give them a cut of a film’s theatrical earnings, whereas in the streaming era this back-end has not yet been settled upon in the industry.

And yet, even setting self-interest and the pandemic aside, these directors are not really correct about this. At the very least they are describing an ideal that only works for just one segment of the viewing public. For many, many viewers, seeing Dune or any other movie on a laptop or a PS5 is a vastly preferable way to experience it. Accessibility, medical, or neurodivergence issues can mean things like frequent bathroom breaks, subtitles or dubs, brightness settings, noise-cancelling headphones, or even just the ability to back up five seconds and hear a line repeated make the difference between someone being able to fully enjoy a film and someone simply gritting their way through a social obligation. For vast tracts of the country, independent films are not coming to their local theater, and will not hit streaming services or VOD for months or years. These are, in many cases, the very same people who risk the most by going to a theater during an airborne respiratory pandemic.

For releases shunted to streaming instead, though, we see a different side of the industry’s greed. Disney is openly screwing stars like Scarlett Johansson when they do things like release Black Widow on streaming. This ensures that the American nuclear family of 4.5 people can see the movie the day it releases for $20 as opposed to $40 or $50, but also circumvents similar agreements that pay actors like Johansson a cut of theatrical gross. Disney had the gall to cite the pandemic when it responded to her lawsuit over it. Disney clearly does not care about any effect that theater openings have on the pandemic, considering it just announced that the remainder of its 2021 films will all be available there exclusively. What matters to Disney, or Paramount, or Warner Bros. is that the most money be made.

And yet, more money could be made, and everybody could be kept safe while theaters could continue earning, even while shuttered. It is not difficult to imagine some kind of agreement, struck between studios, talent, distributors and theaters to release films via streaming while also ensuring that there is some cut for venues that should really be closed. Getting it to happen would require these separate interests to all sit together and agree to collective action that might mean some short-term shortfalls in the interest of long-term survival for everyone. It is even less difficult to envision every theater in the country banding together to mandate vaccination for theatergoers, even to force the issue should they run afoul of stupid provincial governments that have banned this sensible practice.

The film industry is unwilling to upset the waters in this way—as all other businesses that depend on in-person operations are unwilling to bring their clout to bear to demand change—and, as the government is unwilling to do its job and forcibly put in place COVID elimination protocols, the buck, it seems, stops with no one.

It’s much easier to just throw our hands up, ignore the wails of 700,000 American ghosts, and say “Only in Theaters.” A year later, I am still not going. A year later, you still shouldn’t either.

Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.

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