As a poor kid trying to find my way — almost too many years ago than I care to count — I was living for a time in Wilson, Oklahoma. Every weekday after elementary school, I would spend hours scouring the city, collecting pop bottles and cashing them in for the refund. I would pick up any scrap iron lying around and take it where I could sell it for a penny a pound.
I followed this ritual with one purpose in mind. There was a movie theater in Wilson. For the price of a dime, I could spend an entire Saturday afternoon watching the week’s double feature and serial. I loved those Saturdays. They saved me. Here, I could escape the troubling world I lived in and be transported to another place — with Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” or Cary Grant in “Gunga Din.” John Wayne opened up the Wild West for me, and for a few hours, I became him. Through Wayne and other Western stars, I discovered and played out their distinct moral code of loyalty, friendship and integrity, and I adopted it as my own.
When I first started my movie career, movie theaters in communities around the country took on major importance to me. My first starring role was in “Good Guys Wear Black.” The film was having trouble getting distribution, so the producers decided to distribute it themselves, renting theaters in individual cities around the country for a flat fee and pocketing the box-office receipts. I traveled with them, opening from cities to hamlets, talking with folks and promoting the film any way I could. Many critics panned that film, but the public embraced it. They filled those theaters and launched my movie career.
I have an enduring affinity for local movie theaters and the moviegoing experience. Streaming and pay-per-view may be the wave of the future, but these forms of viewing cannot replicate sitting in a darkened theater in a collective state of awe as Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” unfolds for the first time.
The moviegoing experience has long been viewed by many as good for our mental health; some would say it’s necessary. Writing in the mental health website Psycom, relationship expert Sherry Amatenstein explains how, for some people, becoming engrossed in a good movie can provide a therapeutic distraction. According to Psycom, studies show that in a group setting “cinema therapy” can be effective in boosting mental wellness. Watching a story unfold on the big screen can provide reassurance when a character’s feelings strike a chord, signaling to the viewer who feels similarly that he or she is not alone. “Anyone who has ever experienced a change of heart or perspective after watching a movie can attest to film’s ability to influence the way we think about life’s dilemmas,” writes Amatenstein.
As pointed out by Tamekis Williams, an Atlanta-based licensed clinical social worker, comedy and collective laughter also plays a big role in mental health. “(It) can be excellent for reducing stress and depressive mood symptoms. Watching comedy can reduce negative thinking, lessen feelings of isolation and help provide a sense of normalcy, too.”
Today, the movie theater business has been brought to a standstill by the pandemic. Since March, the coronavirus pandemic has closed down movie theaters around the country, deeming them too risky for gatherings. According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, the movie theater industry employs 150,000 hourly workers.
As recently announced by John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, 70% of the movie theaters in the U.S. are scheduled to be back in business soon. Los Angeles or other cities where the coronavirus numbers are still high are not expected to be among them.
“People are sick and tired of watching streamed movies and television shows at home. It’s the shared social experience that I think is the thing that will draw people back,” he explained to NPR.
There is something else that may draw people back. As David Priest writes in CNET, “Independent theaters often forge deeply personal connections with their customers, and while they’ve struggled during the pandemic, their loyal customer bases may be the key to their survival as bigger theaters fold or find new business models.”
The movie theater business may survive, but it may never be the same. Yet, while one nostalgic form of moviegoing struggles to survive, another form is seeing a revival — drive-in movies.
According to the Associated Press, there were an estimated 5,500 indoor theaters in this country at the start of the pandemic breakout. At the same time, there were approximately 300 drive-in theaters remaining in the U.S.
During the pandemic, these once-abundant outdoor venues have a distinct advantage over indoor theaters. People arrive in the comfort of their own little bubble of their vehicle. Social distancing is built in, and other proper COVID-19 protocols are more easily followed.
As noted in USA Today back in May, the drive-in movie experience was not just being revived but getting a substantial makeover. Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Enterprises was teaming with Imax and AT&T Inc. in the creation of “Tribeca Drive-In,” a summer film series to be held at drive-in theaters and other venues throughout the country.
In the heart of Hollywood itself, Sony Pictures turned its Culver City studio lot into a big-screen drive-in experience accommodating approximately 75 cars. The Miami Dolphins’ stadium has turned its field into a drive-in movie theater with room for more than 200 cars and two theater screens available. Fairgrounds and parking lots around the country have followed. As reported by NPR, across the U.S., drive-in concerts have also become a new summertime trend for live music. Many enterprising folks are seeing this trend as an opportunity to start building something resilient that can endure. Time will tell how it will all play out.