It is a truth universally acknowledged that movie theaters will soon be a relic of the past. In fact, the prediction has been held by cultural observers for so long that it has become a self-fulfilling punchline, like Yogi Berra’s quip that nobody goes to a restaurant that’s too crowded. Everyone with a brain knows cinemas are dead. And yet, every summer for the past decade Hollywood’s hitmakers have set new records for weekend box office receipts. Nobody goes because it’s too crowded.
But predictions of the movie theater’s demise feel more likely right now. COVID-19 has ravaged the movie industry: taking some of its largest multiplex chains down, wrecking havoc on the Hollywood production year, and causing even enthusiasts to wonder what the future might hold. This fall, Disney—without a doubt the most important entertainment company in the world—announced that going forward their film division would concentrate on streaming and limit the amount of resources given to theatrical releases.
The significance of this announcement is hard to overstate. Disney is arguably the only studio in Hollywood whose pivot away from cinema and toward streaming could single-handedly affect the survival of the moviegoing industry, an industry almost cripplingly dependent on the company’s tentpole franchises such as Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars. Theatrical releases won’t disappear overnight, of course, but it’s clear that the executives sitting at the controls of the entertainment world believe the future is apps and monthly fees rather than concessions and reclining seats.
Obviously a lot will depend on how the pandemic behaves in 2021. What I know is this: If cinemas do indeed close by the thousands next year, this will be a cause for mourning, and for asking why a Western world so adept at creating billionaires did not try harder to save a truly valuable cultural artifact.
Contrary to what the utopian technocrats of Silicon Valley would have us believe, the ability to consume something without leaving the bed is not, in fact, a self-evidently desirable ability. History is written by victors, and the history of the 21st century will certainly extol the virtues of watching film and television on handheld devices, powered by invisible satellite signals that require no tethers to either place or persons. For most experiences of the internet, this seems obviously preferable. The whole point of the ruthlessly immediate nature of social media is to access it in real-time, so that everything from the breakfast on one’s table to the view from one’s desk can be shared and authenticated by the online world.
Movies, however, are different. Films are compacted narratives that we exerience only by entering into them at an intense and emotional level. Unlike the viral TikTok video or the Instagram post, movies insist on our attention and do not co-exist peacefully with simultaneous rivals. Films resist our attempts at multi-tasking, and anyone who likes watching movies at all knows enjoyment is directly proportional to attentiveness.
This is why, for example, movie theaters are darkened, so that the light coming from the story itself is the sole source of illumination, the only viable candidate for an audience’s gaze. This is also why almost every cinema—with varying levels of enforcement—bans the use of cell phones during screenings. When moviegoers talk about such distractions “breaking the spell,” they do not mean that a ringtone or a small blue glow remind us that our world is real and the world on the screen is fiction (as if we forget that). The spell is not the myth itself but our emotional investment in it. The spell is attention.
It’s important to understand just how rare physical spaces that cultivate serious focus and attentiveness are becoming. The smartphone has invaded American cultural imagination so effectively that no public event, even a funeral or tour of Nazi extermination camp, can exist above it. The idea of merely gazing at or listening to or being present at something, without immediately reaching for the iPhone to record, capture, or just chase away the silence, is rapidly becoming quaint. Distraction no longer competes with the experience, it completes it.
In an essay for a 2016 issue of First Things, writer Marc Barnes recounts witnessing the crowd at an art exhibit almost uniformly point and click their camera phones at paintings without actually spending any time physically lingering before them. He writes:
One could hardly argue that these pictures were taken for the sake of memory. There was no activity within the fifteen-second rite to be remembered—nothing outside of the picture-taking itself. It would be equally unconvincing to argue that this kind of photography is an act of record-keeping, as if my generation enters museums with a mind to making digital backups. There are always better versions online, and besides, any digital copy can only be a reference to the work itself. Who would want a reference to an object only looked at for a few seconds? I could only conclude that it is not for the sake of a picture that the picture is taken, but for the sake of the taking. The desire is not for a captured picture but for capture.
The smartphone technology we almost involuntarily reach for puts itself in between us and the experience we think we are preserving. As Barnes observes, truly contemplating what we try to capture could unsettle us, as all great art tends to do. “A click, and the thing has been dealt with,” Barnes writes, “as if by snapping a shot the painting has been contained and stored, no longer shaming the heart for its hardness or threatening us with an experience that would topple our control.”
Of course, not everything at the cinema is actually great art. But the fact remains that the cinema is one of our society’s last remaining attention habitats. The darkness not only draws our eyes forward but makes us loathe the appearance of a blue glowing screen in our periphery. A dimmed theater makes the addictive nothingness of the smartphone look as obnoxious as it actually is. If someone down near the front persists in using their phone, you can complain to staff, who will (in most cases) enforce the rules. Why? Because in a world where mental overload and constant distraction are accepted as given and even promoted as “productive,” the cinema stands almost alone as an institution of resistance, an assembly where people are taught early and often that it can be a virtue to not know everything that’s “going on” outside and to lose oneself in something transcendent.
Why is this so valuable? It’s not only that resisting distractions enables us to enjoy things like movies more. By virtue of internet-free physical environments that foster focus and make centralized attention natural, cinemas offer a chance to contemplate art more deeply and even more accurately. In his stunning 2010 book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr presents a compelling argument that the internet has fundamentally changed reading—not just where and what we read, but how we read, how we receive information and emerge from the literary experience. Whereas the printing press empowered Western people to read individually, putting comprehended meaning through a solitary rational process, the internet conditions readers’ minds to “juggle,” until the sentence, the hyperlink, the comment, and the next tab all bleed into one sub-rational impression.
The result is not just that the Internet-shaped reader struggles to remember what she reads, but that she struggles to think rationally about it, to experience it singularly. What’s true of books is at least equally true of film, and almost certainly more so. Again, not all films are worthy of deep contemplation, but the point is that deep contemplation is the most meaningful way we can encounter literature or movies, and perhaps the single greatest obstacle to deep contemplation is the one sitting in our pockets. The library is the closest thing we have to a physical habitat structured to protect the reading process. Yet almost every library in the US has free Wi-Fi, and laptops and phones are now as common on library desks as books. The cinema is thus not only unusual in its imaginatively insular liturgy, it is radically unique. Even most church services are not as hostile to digital distraction as the cinema.
A future without cinemas is almost certainly a future with movies that are written, produced, and edited with the influence of digital distraction. As the center of the movie watching experience relocates from the theater to the tablet or smartphone, filmmakers will have no choice but to assume the inevitable: that audiences will be watching these films with one eye, as they scroll social media, peruse Amazon, or check their email with the other. As the line between television and film blurs further, and as the movie industry realizes its dire need to replace the lost revenue from cinemas, advertisements will likely begin to colonize feature films, and studios will ensure the movies’ runtime will accommodate commercials.
If the human mind and heart are nothing more than advanced computers, whose parameters can and should be expanded by an escalating level of input, then this future is not worth worrying about. The convenience of screening movies at home is too compelling. Who’s really worse off who can live-Tweet seeing the latest superhero film, or catch up on work emails while taking in a flick? If movies are merely one more medium among dozens to amuse us for a few seconds in between others, there’s no argument against a world without dark, confined, crowded rooms.
On the other hand, if the stories of movies are formative experiences for us that can give us courage, sympathy, or faith; if those backlit narratives can remind us how to love well and fight hard, then it means something to have one place, just one kind of place, where we can hear these tales speak to us clearly without the tyrannical white noise of digital immediacy. This seems worth saving.