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The movies are back. But we’re still learning how to love going to theaters again

One of my most heartening moviegoing experiences this year fell on July 24, the night I attended a press screening of Disney’s “Haunted Mansion” at the AMC Burbank 16. The movie was lousy, but the preshow in the lobby was thrilling. I first sensed something was up when, after several minutes of driving in circles, I managed to grab the last rooftop spot in a parking structure that rarely reached capacity — on a Monday night, no less. What was going on?

The answer became clear once I made my way into the multiplex and saw more moviegoers than I’d seen in some time. They milled in groups, poured out the doors and scattered popcorn trails down ugly-carpeted hallways. Some wore pink (a lot of it). They jammed concession lines, bathroom lines and possibly cellphone lines. (The modern scourge of mid-movie texting keeps growing worse.) Some of them, like me, were journalists who had dutifully showed up to watch Tiffany Haddish trade wisecracks with digital ectoplasm. Everyone else was there for a mighty spectacle of plastic, plutonium or both: They were there for “Barbenheimer.”

Ah, “Barbenheimer” (a.k.a. “Science Guys and Dolls”), that happy accident of a blockbuster love child conceived by two rival studios, Warner Bros. and Universal, and by two filmmakers, Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan, who had succeeded in putting their highly personal stamps on improbable material. For the first time in a while, too, it clearly felt personal for a mass audience. For many of us, words could hardly describe the excitement of seeing people flock giddily to theaters en masse, seeking out pictures without the imprimatur of a Marvel or a DC universe, or even the more benign franchise imprint of an “Avatar” or “Top Gun” sequel. Perhaps originality at the movies wasn’t dead after all.

Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in the movie “Barbie.”

(Warner Bros.)

There’s room to argue, as many have, over whether a three-hour biopic truly counts as original, or if a semi-subversive, feature-length Mattel spot can be called a creative risk. Even so, there was no denying that “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” had struck commercial and cultural gold by zagging hard where most studios had long been content to zig. The incongruity of the pairing was crucial to its success: A clash of titles, tones, genres, stories, styles and, yes, release dates somehow became a mighty convergence.

The “Barbenheimer” synergy demolished one of the release calendar’s most unfortunate shibboleths: namely, that the box office has room for only one smart popular hit in any given week. It also exposed the lie behind one of Hollywood’s laziest assumptions: that people go to the movies looking to have their expectations confirmed and their fandom serviced, rather than in search of something new, ambitious and unexpected.

All of which made it all the more stingingly ironic that “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” arrived during the early days of the Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes, sparking a months-long shutdown in movie production and movie promotion that overshadowed what should have been the industry’s finest hour. (The strikes also pushed more than a few major titles, “Dune: Part Two” among them, off a 2023 release calendar that badly needed them.) The smash success of two pictures notable for distinctive writing and memorable ensemble acting — achievements, in other words, that a ChatGPT-concocted script and an AI-generated cast would have been hard-pressed to replicate — had the effect of throwing the studios’ greed and short-sightedness into the starkest possible relief.

At the same time, what two better movies to capture the doom-laden spirit of an industry in an existential turmoil? In “Barbie,” a sentient Mattel doll asks if her friends ever think about dying; in “Oppenheimer,” the father of the atomic bomb declares, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” For all their portents of a looming apocalypse, these two pictures had conspired to bring life back to moviegoing, staving off the end of theaters as we knew and loved them.

A woman sits behind a man who's being interrogated.

Emily Blunt and Cillian Murphy in the movie “Oppenheimer.”

(Melinda Sue Gordon / Universal Pictures)

We did know moviegoing well, once upon a pre-pandemic time. But even before the COVID lockdown began, we clearly weren’t loving theaters enough. The years leading up to 2020 saw their share of box office highs and lows, but from where I sit (usually in a middle row, neither too close to the screen nor too far away), they also were marked by a steady diminution of cinematic spirit.

Were we being lazy, or was our exasperation with theaters justified? We’ve all heard and sometimes argued the case for the latter. A night out at the movies seemed to combine the worst practices of the exhibition industry (endless pretrailer ads, subpar projection) and the most slovenly habits of the audience (talking, texting, littering). Living rooms and streaming platforms beckoned, offering sweet relief from, not to get too Sartrean about it, the hell of other people.

None of that has really changed. And yet as we’ve seen in 2023 — a year of whiplash-inducing industry ups and downs, of renewed box-office plenty and extreme labor upheaval — a collective appetite for moviegoing persists. Some of us are trying, with perhaps a touch of wariness, to redevelop the habit. We’re figuring out how to love moviegoing again, and perhaps wondering if the movies themselves will sustain and prove worthy of that love.

Let’s give that skepticism its due. Thrilling as it was to experience “Barbenheimer,” we can be assured that the studios will learn all the wrong lessons from it. Hollywood decision makers will look at an unpredictable and likely unrepeatable concurrence and see a readily exploitable template. Rather than greenlighting smart, interesting projects from adventurous auteur filmmakers, they will more likely attempt to manufacture more and more event movies, reverse-engineering mediocre films into prefab phenomena.

Three young female superheroes look skyward.

Iman Vellani, left, Brie Larson and Teyonah Parris in “The Marvels.”

(Laura Radford / Marvel Studios)

An investment in event cinema for event cinema’s sake is no way to sustain a healthy business or a vital art. I have no wish to join those piling on “The Marvels,” whose commercial disappointment (its $47-million opening weekend is piddling by superheroic standards) has, in some quarters, inspired the kind of gleeful reaction that goes well beyond acceptable anti-Marvel Cinematic Universe schadenfreude and into realms of barely disguised misogyny and racism, much of it aimed at the women of color who directed (Nia DaCosta) and co-starred in the movie (Teyonah Parris, Iman Vellani). Even so, the indifferent audience reception to this zippy, forgettable diversion perfectly illustrates the pitfalls of franchise fatigue, or perhaps the law of diminishing blockbuster returns. More than any other company, Marvel has shown us how too many so-called event movies have a way of calcifying into a steady drip of business as usual. (The supplemental MCU homework on Disney+ really doesn’t help.)

Event movies are no longer the exclusive domain of the major studios anyway. Witness the staggering success ($240 million in global box office and counting) of “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour,” a straightforward, relatively low-budget ($24 million) but visually and sonically enveloping concert documentary that was released directly through AMC Theatres and now stands as the year’s biggest theatrical hit this side of “Barbenheimer.” The most obvious takeaway from this hugely successful gambit is that Swiftian levels of pop-cultural supremacy have a way of writing their own rules. (“Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé,” the next test of an AMC partnership with a pop superstar, opens in theaters Dec. 1.) But it was also a reminder, as no less a pro-theatrical evangelist than Nolan himself pointed out, that there are savvy artists eager to fill the theatrical breach that studios have been all too willing to abandon.

The sense that Swift had beaten the studios at their own game was apparent to those of us who attended the world premiere of “The Eras Tour” last month, a splashy and symbolically grandiose affair even for Hollywood. The Grove, a regular venue for studio press screenings, shut down for an entire day and underwent the kind of extreme makeover that red-carpet shortages are made of. Decadence ruled the evening: There were fizzy apéritifs, overflowing concession stands and an in-person intro by Swift herself.

But the actual experience inside the theater, where costumed attendees sang, danced, swayed, ran through the aisles and shot videos of the screen, was a fundamentally egalitarian spectacle that replayed itself in theater after theater across the country. These fans weren’t just there to see a movie; they were there to merge with it, to extend the movie’s power beyond the parameters of the screen and into the audience. Intentionally or not, they invested the very act of moviegoing with the seriousness and passionate ceremony of a religious ritual.

An Osage woman sits at a table with a white man.

Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

(Apple TV+)

Cinema purists have a tendency to speak of the theatrical experience in such high-flown spiritual terms. And yes, some of them do genuflect a bit too reflexively at the altar of certain designated high priests, like Martin Scorsese, and so are apt to recoil in indignation at the news that some theaters had seen fit to quietly insert an intermission into “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Were they responding to viewer complaints or trying to preempt them? Were they anxious not to lose audiences who, accustomed to the conveniences of home viewing and easy, whenever-you-feel-like-it bathroom breaks (a convenience I have been tempted to call “urine streaming”), might no longer be so easily convinced to sit through a 3½-hour movie?

I didn’t personally take umbrage at the “Killers” intermission contretemps: If “Lawrence of Arabia” or “2001: A Space Odyssey” can withstand a pee break without significant loss of immersive impact, surely a new Scorsese film can as well, even one as carefully and meaningfully paced as this one. At the same time, speaking as someone who sat through “Killers of the Flower Moon” twice sans interruption, I’ve grown weary of the incessant grousing about the movie’s running time, especially when it’s so often the first aspect of the movie people seize upon in conversation (as opposed to, say, Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth’s narrative choices, Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography or Lily Gladstone’s performance). Most of the running-time complaints betray a grumbling preoccupation with personal comfort that this despairing, deeply mournful movie has rightfully little use for. Weak bladders aren’t really the issue here; easily distracted eyes and diminished attention spans are.

To discuss moviegoing primarily in terms of Scorsese and Marvel movies is to traffic in narratives preselected and predigested by social media — so let’s not. In some ways, the most delightful moviegoing story of the year has been the remarkable theatrical success of A24’s “Past Lives,” the critically acclaimed, Sundance-launched drama from first-time writer-director Celine Song. A wistful, piercing story about immigrant destinies, missed opportunities and romantic happenstance, it snuck into the box office top 10 in its June opening weekend, a remarkable feat for an independent movie from a first-time film director working with lesser-known actors. One of the most gratifying aspects of “Past Lives’” success (it has grossed more than $18 million domestically) was that it felt driven by genuine word-of-mouth excitement; people attended not out of any sense of obligation but in a spirit of genuine discovery. For anyone still learning to love moviegoing again, here was a picture to make one swoon.

A woman and a man sit on the top deck of a ferry boat.

Greta Lee and Teo Yoo in the movie “Past Lives.”

(Jon Pack / Sundance Institute)

And who needs new movies to make theatergoing feel vital again? For me, there was the American Cinematheque’s summer screening of Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” in a 70mm print that crackled, glowed and transported a rapt Aero Theatre audience for 200 minutes, intermissions be damned. There was the joy of running into friends I hadn’t seen in years at a digital 4K restoration of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Millennium Mambo” (2001), a dreamily intoxicating experience that lingered even as we hung around outside the theater afterward, catching up on life under the glow of the Los Feliz 3 marquee.

And I sure wish I’d had some of those friends with me when I snuck out to a late-night showing of “Skinamarink,” Kyle Edward Ball’s shoestring exercise in avant-garde spookhouse horror. Another surprise word-of-mouth hit (it grossed more than $2 million on a $15,000 budget), this was, for me, the only movie this year truly worthy of the title “Haunted Mansion” — an experience so potently unsettling that I found myself switching on every light in every room as I made my way upstairs to bed. It’s not every movie that follows you home from the theater afterward. But it’s the hope of discovering one anew that keeps us going back.

#movies #learning #love #theaters

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