Seven months into avoiding all restaurants, bars or anywhere else that is not my house or a public park, it feels like I’m the crazy one. Every day I need to remind myself I’m not, though. It is a fact that it is not safe to go to any large gathering of people—at least not in the United States, where COVID-19 rages mostly unchecked. It will not be safe to do so for an unforeseeably long time. Going to a movie theater in particular, say those who know best, is about the worst thing you can do with masks and social distancing, and even with the precautions movie theaters have been taking to clean theaters in between showings. None of these theaters can do anything about the fact their patrons are breathing one another’s air for three hours at a time. And yet movie theaters are open here in the United States, and Christopher Nolan and Tom Cruise really, really want you to go to them.
AMC tried to entice audiences back into its empty seats recently with a promotional ticket prices set at $0.15, the price of a ticket a century ago.
Let’s talk about that price because it says far more than AMC perhaps intends it to—not just about the industry that sets that price, but the practices that got us here and that are going to keep us here. Fifteen cents in 1920 would equate to $1.94 today, according to one calculation. A movie ticket’s average price last year was $9.11, and I’ve rarely personally bought one cheaper than $10 in years.
These numbers don’t tell the entire complicated story, obviously: The expense of creating films has also exploded, and it’s nearly impossible to compare the cost of a major, effects-heavy blockbuster from the 1920s to one today. The Ten Commandments (1923) cost $1.5 million at the time, or about $22 million in 2020 money, but it didn’t need to hire any CGI artists to rotoscope anything. It nonetheless has become harder for a single American to afford going to a movie, and appallingly expensive for a family to go see one. Purchasing tickets for seats for a family of five to go see Frozen 2 is a $50 commitment at most local theaters before any discussion of concessions—the sort of money an average family uses to feed or clothe their kids, not go see one show. As small businesses shutter around the country and unemployment claims increase by the million that is not going to get better. And movie theaters remaining open during a pandemic prolongs those conditions.
Christopher Nolan and every other entity begging you to roll the dice on it all have perverse incentives for doing so—in the case of the former, a contract that allows him to reap major earnings on his movies’ box office takes. From the studio’s standpoint, forcing people into a theater remains the only practical way to charge viewers by the head rather than by the household. So, if you want to see Star Wars before somebody spoils it for you, you have to go drive out to the theater and wait through half a damn hour of trailers that you’ve already seen, with more advertising creeping onto the screen. The theater is giving most of every ticket’s cost to the studio, after all, and their cushy recliners and 3D capability need to be paid for somehow. And if you want to see an indie film, well, I hope you live in New York or Los Angeles.
It is galling to think that these same unbearable market forces and perverse incentives are forcing this deadly dynamic to continue. All the technology and communication infrastructure already exists to do the right thing and release films on-demand while ensuring both the interests and health of filmmakers, theaters and movie-goers are respected. The only thing lacking is the same thing that was lacking before: a willingness for all parties involved to do something that benefits the customer for once. Instead, my choices are apparently to risk death to see a movie that will come out on YouTube or Hulu in a few months anyway, or remain at home.
Ticket sales are not going to fully recover until the pandemic has passed, however long that might take, and so the industry’s insistence on business as usual feels particularly selfish and blind. Despite all of this, though, I miss going to the movies. Not for the bullshit reasons Nolan, Cruise and other obnoxious people say about movies being “meant to be shown in theaters.” (At least at home I can turn the subtitles on when Ken Watanabe or Tom Hardy is talking in a Nolan movie.) The real reason that I put up with all of it is depressingly also what is keeping me from going: the people.
When I go to see a film in theaters, I hear people sobbing into their popcorn as Old Captain America hands his shield off to Falcon, or watch a row of 13-year-old girls laugh with horror at one particular scene in Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. I didn’t think much of the recent Pet Sematary remake, but I shared the theater with one group of people who all leaped 10 feet out of their seats at every jump scare and approached me, a total stranger, to rave about it as the credits rolled.
I miss those strangers. I miss sharing these things with them. And every day thoughtless self-interest causes theaters to stay open pushes the day I’ll eventually get to do it again further and further into the future. It does not need to be this way, and the industry, for its own sake, should figure out some other way, right now.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.