Small Movies Are Proving the Theater Experience Is Vital

Much has been written and said about the death of the movie theater. Streaming platforms and on-demand access to an incredibly wide breadth of content are keeping people at home for their cinematic experiences. Big movies are coming to home video options more quickly than ever, and new, original movies (and shows) are coming to Netflix and the like on what seems like a daily basis. And it’s true that it’s been harder than ever to get people out to the theater, hence the reliance on franchises, hence the weird birth and death of MoviePass, hence the transition to “luxury” experiences with seat-side dining and reclining chairs, and hence the steadily increasing price of tickets and concessions that everyone likes to complain about.

And these are all valid concerns. I really do get it. I’m a homebody. I would just sit on my couch all day long if I could. But there is no denying that going out to see a movie, in a large dark room with a big screen and strangers all around you, is a special kind of experience. Many defenders of the movie-going experience like to point out the increasingly visceral action films such as those in the Marvel/Star Wars/Disney camp as reasons to still turn out to the theater. The superior audio-visual experience is made for those kinds of films, and I don’t necessarily disagree. Certainly, those are the movies that see the highest turnout to the theater. They’re events, amusement park rides that incentivize the $100 (?) even a small family can spend in one outing to a movie theater. I definitely would rather see them in the theater; but then, I’d like to see most every film in the theater. But at this point, I’m becomingly increasingly convinced that smaller movies are the ones that really give life to the movie theater experience. Or, they could if given the chance. I’m really not sure the future will really encourage going outside the home to watch a movie.

I finally caught SORRY TO BOTHER YOU this past week, and it is the reason why I’m writing these words right now. This feeling, that smaller movies are really why you should go to the theater, is probably something that’s been obvious to many for some time. And I think I’ve felt it for some time. But my experience with SORRY TO BOTHER YOU allowed me to articulate it. Quite simply, watching the zaniness and important messages of Boots Riley’s socialist/communist manifesto with a bunch of people who, I have to imagine, don’t think about the gentrification of Oakland, the struggle of laborers, or how race truly does impact how one can make a living, was a really interesting experience.

Of course, there were those “in the know” in the crowd, and the blend of reactions from people who knew what they were getting into and those that didn’t, necessarily, really added fuel to the fire that was SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. And to be clear: I think most of the theater enjoyed the film. There were definitely a lot of laughs, gasps, and little “oh my gods” throughout the film. I’d like to think some eyes were opened watching the film. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is a pretty energetic and strange film, but it’s not the weirdest movie out there. I think some of the audience walked out thinking it was the weirdest film they had seen in a long time or ever. And that impact drove home what the movie was trying to say.

But, you know, these are all projections of my own creation. I truly don’t know what anyone but myself and my girlfriend (who I saw the movie with) really thought about SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. But I did experience those laughs, those gasps, and those “oh my gods” with a bunch of people I didn’t know. And it felt good. This was a film that didn’t rely on special effects, one that had a tiny budget and relied on something deeper than action. And a crowd, a predominantly white Arizona crowd mind you, really enjoyed it. My experience with a bunch of strangers and a gem like SORRY TO BOTHER YOU gives me hope for the future of cinema. Perhaps the theater won’t be a megaplex as it once was, but a niche institution catering to a smaller audience. That’s fine. I’m not going to be an old man and say the art form is dying because theaters are. But there will certainly be a bit more nuance to its life with the ubiquitous presence of movie theaters.

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