The Covid-19 pandemic has provided powerful evidence for the irrepressibility of human sociability. Most people aren’t hermits. They not only enjoy company; they positively hunger for contact with family, friends, and even strangers. Despite the pandemic and despite restrictions from government health care officials, tens of millions around the world have risked their health to go to restaurants, bars, dance clubs, and even orgies. Earlier this week, right-wing Hungarian politician Jozsef Szajer, who had sponsored anti-LGBTQ laws in his native land, was caught participating in a 25-man sex party in Brussels—a scandal in Belgium because it violated Covid-19 protocols.
Despite rogue figures like Szajer, most people are maintaining Covid restrictions, which means that entertainment industries that rely on social gathering have suffered. The movie industry has been hit particularly hard because it faces competition from streaming services like Netflix, HBO Max (which started during the pandemic), and Disney+. With the rise of streaming and easy availability of high-quality home entertainment networks, it’s now possible for members of the middle class to replicate the moviegoing experience in their own homes—or at least a highly fragmented and individualistic version of that experience.
In October, New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott asked, “Will a return to normalcy herald the next stage in an emerging duopoly, with the two dominant companies—Netflix and Disney—using big screens to showcase selected content, treating theaters as a kind of loss leader for their lucrative subscription services?”
This prophecy seems increasingly likely. On Thursday, the last great living auteur of European avant-garde cinema, Jean-Luc Godard, celebrated his 90th birthday. That same day, Warner Media announced that it is radically restructuring how it is going to release movies for the next year. Instead of the usual pattern of movies appearing first at theaters and then becoming available for streaming and rental months later, Warner Media plans to simultaneously release movies on its streaming service HBO Max and in theaters. This will be done with such highly anticipated releases as Dune, The Suicide Squad, Matrix 4, and Godzilla vs. King Kong. Most of these films are popular entertainment, but at least one (Judas and the Black Messiah, about the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton) is a high-end drama.
Warner Media claims that simultaneous release on HBO Max and movie theaters is a temporary measure in response to Covid-19. But theater owners see it as a threat to their industry.
In a statement, Adam Aron, CEO of AMC Entertainment, the world’s largest theater chain, noted, “Clearly, Warner Media intends to sacrifice a considerable portion of the profitability of its movie studio division, and that of its production partners and filmmakers, to subsidize its HBO Max start up. As for AMC, we will do all in our power to ensure that Warner does not do so at our expense.”
Aron’s alarm is justified. We’re witnessing a transformation of what it means to watch a movie. For over a century, film was at its core a theatrical art form: While it’s true that movies could be watched on TV, the primary cinematic experience was immersive viewing in a theater surrounded by strangers. Now there is a push to make the movie theater merely one platform among others, offering an experience deemed no more meaningful than watching the same feature-length visual narratives on a home entertainment system, a laptop, or even a cell phone.
For media giants like Warner Media, Covid-19 is a wonderful alibi. It allows them to disguise their murder of the moviegoing experience as death by natural causes. It’s entirely possible that the long-term project of companies like Disney and Warner Media is to drive independent movie chains out of business and then set up their own theater chains, so they won’t have to split the profit. In such a scenario, moviegoing would be even more dominated by a handful of media giants.
As media giants like Netflix, Disney, and Warner Media try to downgrade the moviegoing experience, it’s important to articulate how essential immersive theatrical watching is.
When we watch a movie at home, or on an airplane, or on a treadmill at the gym, the movie is a small part of the environment. It’s easy to be distracted from the movie by everything else all around us, even if we have a giant wall-screen TV. When we watch a movie in a theater, the movie isn’t part of the environment; it is the environment. We’re enveloped in the movie and taken away from our humdrum existence.
But even as theatrical moviegoing is more all-encompassing, it is also more social. At home, we watch a movie alone or with people we know. In a theater, we watch a movie with strangers, who are as immersed in the narrative as we are.
In March 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic was starting, New York Times critic Manohla Dargis reflected on what made theatrical film watching special: “And while you can watch them sitting alone on your couch (I regularly do although usually with a few cats), there is something qualitatively different about going to a designated space and sitting, and staying, in the enveloping dark with a lot of people you don’t know and maybe some you do. It is an exquisite, human thing to sit with all those other souls, to be alone with others.”
It’s a unique experience of dreaming with your eyes open in company. When in a horror movie the serial killer jumps out of the shadows, we all gasp in unison. When a comedian like Jim Carrey does a pratfall, the laughter in the crowd is infectious. When the romantic couple finally unites and kisses after endless complications, everyone watching can swoon in unison.
Speaking about the documentary Watching Movies, the film critic Johanna Schneller observed that “there is a collective emotional energy that floats above the people who are watching movies.”
Film is one of the most social of art forms. We first go to movies in the company of our parents, then with friends and lovers. Shared memories of movies is part of the glue that binds together relationships. As Pauline Kael, the greatest of all film critics, once noted, “Being able to talk about movies with someone—to share the giddy high excitement you feel—is enough for a friendship.”
To be sure, there’s always been a downside to theatrical film watching. Writing in The New Republic in 1943, Manny Farber (who would later be film critic for The Nation) took stock of “the trouble with movies,” which included “the cashier in her glass house” who couldn’t understand customers, “the location of the men’s room, the poor quality of the candy.” All of these were enough, Farber predicted, to lead to the triumph of television. To Farber’s litany of petty aggravations one could add people who talk too loud, people who answer cell phones in the middle of screenings, and the high cost of parking.
Still, Farber was wrong in thinking that television meant the end of movies, a common mistake in his era. But the future is never inevitable. The fate of theatrical moviegoing is not just a matter of ineluctable technological change: It involves deeply political decisions about the world we want to live in.
Corporate giants like Netflix, Disney, and Warner Media are empowered by political decisions strengthening monopoly power. Disney’s current war against repertory theaters showing old movies is made possible by copyright laws that favor big business. Disney prefers that we watch current remakes rather than the original classics—and is using its stranglehold on copyright to enforce its will.
The streaming future that these media giants are creating is very much a future that is favorable to capitalism: a deeply privatized, fragmented world where everyone watches in their own individual cave and is incapable of forming a collective identity. It’s the ideal autocracy as imagined by Plato—with Mickey Mouse as the philosopher king. But just as political choices have empowered the media giants, political resistance can fight back and reclaim the experience of moviegoing.