It's been more than six months since I was in a movie theater. As somebody who reviews films for a living, this has been a pretty significant change in my life. For the last several years, I've gone to movie theaters at least once a week, and sometimes several times in a week, to see as many new movies as I can in order to be able to write about them here at CinemaBlend. Ever since theaters closed, I'd wondered when I might be able to go back to back to the theater, and then this week, I actually found myself with an opportunity to do so, and it was... fine. Actually, the whole experience felt strange.
I went back and looked, and the last time I was in a movie theater prior to this week was March 11, 2020. I had a press screening of the Dave Bautista movie My Spy, a film which, as it turns out, most people never even got a chance to see in theaters, as the film instead debuted on Amazon Video. I remember talking to some of my fellow film critics that night about the possibility that theaters might close, and within only a couple days, they were. Of course, we had no real idea when we'd have a chance to see another movie in a theater again.
Theaters Are Reopening
So I wasn't exactly prepared last week when my email lit up with the first notification of a press screening I had seen since March. I live in California which, following one false start already, has kept a tight lid on businesses opening. However, some counties have seen virus rates drop to a level where some businesses have been allowed to open up more. In those counties, theaters are open, but social distancing is being done in theaters and face coverings are required. The screening itself would be limited to a maximum of 30 people in a theater capable of seating 130 attendees.
I've tried to be pretty considerate during this whole thing. For the most part, I have continued to stay home and not go out unless I needed to. I have, in the last couple of weeks, gone out to eat a couple of times, though always outdoors, and my mask has always stayed on unless I was actively eating. Certainly many people are quarantining more than I have been. Many others have been doing less. I spoke with my wife and she had no problem with my attendance.
I won't pretend I wasn't a little nervous by the idea, but I felt that if I took proper precautions, and everybody else did as well, while the risk wasn't zero, it was minimal. So I made arrangements to attend the screening. For the record, nobody at CinemaBlend even knew I was planning to attend the screening until after I had already decided to do so. Official company policy at this time is that nobody is expected to attend any events away from home if they don't feel safe doing so.
The Theater Lobby
So earlier this week, I headed off to a movie theater for the first time in over six months. The first thing of note is that while the theater was open, it was, perhaps not surprisingly, pretty dead. While it was a weekday evening, not necessarily the busiest time of the week, theaters were almost always doing significant business whenever I went to screenings before the shutdown. This was as empty as I had ever seen a movie theater.
I counted four total employees who were visible; three behind the concession counter and one taking tickets. There were five customers, divided among three parties, in the entire lobby, and everybody was masked up. Markers on the ground reminded people to keep distance, but the lobby was so empty, it was barely necessary. Still, plexiglass largely separated the theater's staff and myself, and people seemed conscious of keeping their distance within the space.
Of course, this brought me to the concession stand. This was tough because I love my movie snacks. Ever since I was a kid, popcorn has been an intrinsic part of every movie visit. I could eat a four-course gourmet meal, and if I was seeing a movie afterward, I would still grab a small popcorn. But popcorn meant eating, and eating meant taking off my mask during the movie, something I wasn't entirely comfortable doing. I felt like if I was going to spend two hours in a theater, the least I could do was keep my mask on. I compromised by grabbing a drink, I don't drink much soda outside of the movies anymore, and knew I could slip the straw under my mask without removing it entirely. I brought my own reusable silicone straw to the theater with me to avoid unnecessary waste.
A brief trip into the men's restroom found it equally empty. Interestingly, signs had been put up closing off some sinks and even some of the urinals, which was clearly designed to force people to keep at a distance while using the facilities, but I never ran into another person while there.
The Return Of The Theatrical Experience
From there, I went into the theater for my screening. Of the maximum 30 people that were being allowed it, we had 23 people in attendance, which I honestly found a little surprising. I wasn't sure even that many people would be willing to venture out. This particular theater used the newer recliner seat model, which meant, among other things, that the seats themselves were larger. I had no trouble finding a seat at the end of one row that was several seats away from my closest neighbor. I was close enough to talk to some of the other critics I hadn't seen in six months without having to actually get too close to any of them.
In talking to some of my colleagues, I found similar feelings to my own regarding being at the theater. Most had come to the screening out of curiosity to see what the experience was like as much as any desire to see the specific film. Although, one of my friends who had taken the opportunity had actually been at the theater for several hours, having seen Tenet at a showing earlier that day.
The movie viewing experience itself was, well, a welcome return to the theater, without getting into the film itself (all in good time). The screening felt like any other I had ever attended once the lights went out. I did occasionally take a look around and see masks off, as some in the theater were snacking, but they all seemed to go back on when that wasn't happening. Under the circumstances, it's the best you can hope for.
Overall, the trip to the theater felt okay. I'll admit, if I had walked into the theater and it had been crowded, or if I hadn't seen everybody in masks, I would have felt differently very quickly. But it wasn't just that there were only a few people there, but that everybody seemed willing to deal with the circumstances well in order to see a movie.
I'm not writing this to argue that everybody should run back to the theater. This is just one anecdotal report of the experience in one place. For many, right now just isn't the right time to be going to the theater under any circumstances. Even if you think some venturing out is acceptable, it only works when everybody is abiding by the rules, and the simple fact is not everybody is going to feel confident enough that others will do that. Still, I honestly feel better about the future after having gone to the theater than I did beforehand.
I'll certainly be keeping myself to myself for the next couple weeks just to be sure that everything is okay, but it was nice to get back to the theater, and I certainly hope I have the chance again before another six months go by.