WThe Last Picture Shows hat’s playing? Not much these days. As of late January, SpiderMan: No Way Home and, to a far lesser extent, sequels to Sing and Scream were the only significant draws as movie theaters languished. “The Box Office is Dying from a Lack of Movies,” an IndieWire headline declared, seeing little relief until The Batman (yes, him again) swoops in to (hopefully) reverse the decline in early March. The weekly drama over “the numbers” doesn’t concern this quarterly publication that plays to a different audience and has little interest in the endless procession of superheroes. But the ramifications are concerning.
If you’ve seen Belfast, Licorice Pizza, or Drive My Car, covered in this issue, in a theater, you’re among the few, and thanks for braving whatever restrictions were posted at the door and keeping another kind of cinema alive with your patronage. We’re reconciled to the fact that in the COVID-endemic world we’re slouching toward, “What’s playing?” will be more a question for Siri than anyone else, as streaming continues its ascent. Most of the films we’re reviewing these days get scant or no theatrical exposure, which is a pity given the breathtaking vistas of The Power of the Dog or the black-and-white austerity of The Tragedy of Macbeth. We don’t begrudge filmmakers taking the path that avoids the compromises of traditional studio production, but we suspect that directors of the caliber of Jane Campion and Joel Coen aren’t happy that smartphones, computer screens, and TV monitors are often the only means for many audiences to see their work.
The “theatrical experience,” already under fire before the pandemic erupted two years ago, is dwindling. Let’s address “the numbers.” Last November, a survey by film research company The Quorum found that fifty-one percent of roughly 2,500 respondents, all of whom attended a movie in 2019, returned to theaters last year. These were mostly city-dwelling white men between the ages of twenty-five and fortyfive. But forty-nine percent, mostly female, stayed home. A third said they would return if concession prices drop, theaters add newer seats, and do more to shush noisy fellow viewers. Disquietingly, around eight percent of respondents, mostly lower-income Black, Latinx, and Asian women, were reported as “likely losts,” never to come back.
A shrinking audience is one thing (and shrunk it has, with total U.S. box office receipts of $11.4 billion in 2019 down to $4.6 billion in 2021). There’s also the issue of where filmgoers will return. Bloomberg reported in December that 630 theaters that closed during the pandemic have remained shuttered, their reopenings uncertain. Comprising about twelve per-
cent of the roughly 5,500 theaters across North America, these range from urban multiplexes and the fabled Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles to independently run cinemas in small rural towns. As 2022 began, the historic Castro Theatre in San Francisco, mostly dark for two years, announced a change in ownership that will see it become more of a live-events space next year. “Fuck off! Bring the cinema palace back” was a typical response on Twitter from lovers of its creative film programming. Like it or not, the Castro’s solution is a possible future for other venues. Last October, a Wall Street Journal article entitled “The Future of Movie Theaters Is More Than Just Movies” rhapsodized about theaters becoming a “gathering place,” noting that some stayed afloat by hosting private events amidst the pandemic.
But how can we blame theaters when the old school content suppliers are doing so little to support them? When former Disney CEO Bob Iger was asked by CNBC in December about the future of movie theaters, he was sanguine, noting that “people like to go out…they love experiencing things in physical form,” adding that “there’s some value” to maintaining theatrical releases. Not much value, apparently. In a deal involving Disney, WarnerMedia, and Fox (a Disney acquisition, now called 20th Century Studios), the recent theatrical underperformers Nightmare Alley, The Last Duel, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye, among other Fox titles, were this winter quietly sloughed off to HBO and the HBO Max and Hulu streaming services. The traditional “window” between platforms has tightened to a peephole, and while Business Insider said this amounted to “a second chance at life” for Guillermo del Toro’s film, it’s another example of movie theaters being downgraded to temporary way stations in favor of home viewing.
Theaters can’t live on superhero and event movies alone, and for their “second chance at life,” a greater selection of films—one that might bring back those who have embraced the convenience of streaming or, more likely, entice older theatergoers who suspended the habit during the pandemic—is essential. Theater-chain owner Vince Guzzo agrees. “More movies will be geared to an older crowd. Less visual effects, more story content. I will be more likely to book art-house movies— movies for grownups.”
With filmmakers, film studios, and exhibitors equally spellbound by the potential of online entertainment, however, finding advocates is difficult. “Nobody wants to come to shows no more,” a character muses in the late Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, an Oscar winner fifty years ago. “Kid baseball in the summer, television all the time.” The time is now to unplug and show your support for the much loved, if currently battered, theatrical experience.—The Editors
Founder and Editor-in-Chief
Editorial Board ROBERT CASHILL
RAHUL HAMID CYNTHIA LUCIA RICHARD PORTON Consulting Editor DAN GEORGAKAS
(In Memoriam) Contributing Editors ROY GRUNDMANN LEONARD QUART
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