The End Of The Movies

The End Of The Movies


Leonard Zwelling

According to Peggy Noonan in the above op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on December 18, the new Steven Spielberg film version of West Side Story cleared $10.5 million at the box office during its opening weekend. This must be a grave disappointment to Spielberg’s studio and to those who invested in his new vision of an American classic especially as it received uniformly great reviews.

Spider-Man: No Way Home cleared $253 million on its opening weekend. This is a record for pandemic movie theater openings.

What do these two facts say about the future of American cinema? In my opinion, everything.

For many years I was a loyal advocate of movie going. I had so many friends who had abandoned the theater experience for home viewing, but I persisted even making a special trip to see The Irishman at the now-closed River Oaks Theater before the film started streaming. Then came Covid, and I haven’t been to a movie theater in almost two years. I think my last venture was in February of 2020 to see Blake Lively in The Rhythm Section, a spy thriller. As I left my seat that night, I had no inkling it would be my last time in a movie theater for a while and the last time at the River Oaks ever.

I do not think that I am atypical.

First, the audience for small independent films or even the year end prestige movies bucking for Oscar consideration is older adults. The audience for Spider-Man is young males all the way down to my three-year old grandson. Older adults have largely left the theater.

Second, this has become especially true as home televisions have gotten larger with more theater-like sound systems and streaming services more aggressive in competing for content to include fantastic made-for-streaming fare like Dopesick and first-run films even as they open in theaters.

It is my hypothesis and that of many others that the common film-going experience born in the 1920s and 30s, and blossoming after the Second World War may have finally come to an end. It was not television itself that killed the movies, but rather Netflix and its minions.

The question remains, is this a bad thing?

I think the answer is yes and no.

Movies were made to be a communally shared experience in the dark. Glamorous movie stars, big budget spectaculars and prestige directors dominated the 1970s and beyond as the studio system broke down and the auteur director came to dominate cinema. This will be missed.

Now, the theaters are full of super heroes and raunchy romantic comedies while the truly fine scripts and high production values are more often seen on television and streaming services. Besides, movie night has become prohibitively expensive with dinner, baby sitter, popcorn and parking, a night out that used to be under $20 is approaching $100. Why not use the streaming service you are already paying for, invite eight friends over, pop your own corn and not have to sit next to someone chatting on his cell phone during the picture? And that doesn’t take into account not having to unstick the bottom of your shoes from the spilled Coke on the floor and having to sit near a mother holding her crying infant.

Adults have outgrown the movie-going experience because the movie-going experience left adults in the dust. The MBAs of Hollywood don’t care about our love affair with what they used to offer. They just need to make money for their shareholders and that is best done with caped heroes and lucrative spin-offs and tie ins. Star Wars kind of started it, but the Avengers have the last laugh.

In 1962 I had one of the most profound experiences of my life watching Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen in downtown Manhattan. I have made it a point to see it on the big screen every 25 years since then. I doubt I’ll make it to my 75th anniversary and wouldn’t want to go to a sticky theater to see it anyway. I will rerun it in my mind or on the DVD player if I need to.

As the multiplex procreated across the fruited plain and the classy big movie theater went away (I remember when Radio City Music Hall was a movie theater with Rockettes), and Covid invaded our consciousness, I too have joined my friends as a living room movie watcher.

It is sad, but the combination of wide availability of films, the unpleasantness of the theater experience, and the technology leaps for home theaters, may mean that Saturday night at the pictures may have breathed its last. I mourn its passing, but am myself part of the problem. Like so many other aspects of our lives from home offices to shaking hands, Covid accelerated the rate of society’s change and may well mark the end of movies as we knew them.

I miss the big screen, but I have rarely seen a film in IMAX that has been worth the money. On the other hand, I don’t miss the sticky floors, crying infants or talking teens.

“It’s the pictures that got small.”

6 thoughts on “The End Of The Movies”

  1. Kenneth Marblestone

    We made our first post-COVID trip to a movie theater on Christmas Eve to see West Side Story. If you have not done so, you should see it (not necessarily in a movie theater). I thought the choreography was absolutely extraordinary, and everything else was comparable to, if not superior to, the original.

  2. My wife and I went to see “Licorice Pizza” last week, our first theater experience since the pandemic. Tickets + snacks = $75 or so. The movie received rave reviews; we left horribly disappointed. As with so many “adult” movies (as opposed to superhero fare), reviewers praised the preciousness of it, but that very characteristic left us feeling very alienated. Had it not been for the ticket price, I’d have nudged my wife and suggested we leave early. Not sure what the movie’s budget was, but it apparently didn’t include an editor.

    You’re correct that streaming is where it’s at, at least for those of us who like something more than surface-level entertainment. You mentioned “Landscapers” in another post, and that’s a good example (though the final two episodes were a bit meh for us). You might enjoy “The Lost Daughter,” a Netflix original, stars Olivia Colman from “Landscapers.” A bit low on plot—reminiscent of “Lost in Translation”—but still, a decent investment of time. And certainly worth the price!

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