Film is a rapidly changing medium. This isn’t surprising, really. It’s still relatively new. Something that’s been around for barely over a hundred years is going to find itself constantly evolving. Currently, we find ourselves in the digital age, as has been the case for some time. Things seem to be moving faster than ever. DVD gave way to Blu-Ray, from there we moved on to streaming media; services like Netflix, Hulu, etc… And of course it’s given way to piracy as well. With all of that in mind (And COVID) it’s tough to say the traditional movie theater will survive.
But I think they can. Horror has always been at the forefront of the innovations in moviegoing over the years. Even 3D, as much of an eye-rolling phenomenon as it has become, is not something I discredit simply because it gave people a reason to go to theaters again. It is gimmick mentality, but it’s nothing new. William Castle was the master of theatrical gimmicks back in the ’50s. This included turning out lights in the theaters, experimentation with various sound sources, actually sending a shock through the seats and even 3D.
Now, 3D has outstayed its welcome and films that are in 3D often aren’t advertised as being such. It ran its course just as it did in the 1950’s and the 1980’s. It moves in cycles. But people are still going to the theater. The gimmick is fading, and movie theaters still matter, so maybe we don’t need to rely on flashy things for their survival. Box office numbers still matter…whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I’m not sure.The movie theater provides an experience that you just can’t get at home. Both are incredibly worthwhile. There’s something in the magic of sitting in a crowded theater (post-pandemic) especially in a horror film, which is constantly filled with screams and laughter from beginning to end. And there’s something deeply satisfying about sitting at home and binging the horror selection on Netflix, discovering hidden gems among all the really, really terrible titles. Part of the beauty of film is that with one movie you can have completely different experiences. Maybe something was going on in your life the first time you saw a particular film, maybe it was a first date, that will make you remember it forever—even if it wasn’t a particularly good movie.
Another important thing to look at here is the resurgence of retro theaters. Part of the logic here might be that if every movie can be pirated—and is being pirated—then the theater experience itself needs to be the main draw rather than the movie. This has led to more and more appeal in seeing older films in the theater. Particularly an original 35mm print. The Alamo Drafthouse, essentially a film geek holy grail, continues to expand and open in more and more cities. Then there are the local art-house cinemas as well that continue to make screenings of older features into an event.
Even major chain cinemas are getting in on this action, scheduling cult classics for one night only, sometimes in a themed series. These strategies are working, and they work well. It’s incredibly satisfying to see Jaws with an audience that is seeing the film for the first time, maybe going in skeptically but jumping at all the appropriate moments all the same. Just look at The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That movie has not been out of theaters since 1975 and it is still going strong, having been transformed over the years from a campy cult classic to an iconic film for the LGBT community.
Still, the key to saving theaters doesn’t lie in just playing older features. Simplistic as it might sound, it lies in going to the movies. That’s really all people have to keep doing. As long as that appeal is still there, as long as it’s an event, something to do with friends, then it’s hard to imagine that the cinema experience won’t be around for some time to come.