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I Shed A Tear For Movie Theaters

Atom Films had an article that really hit me hard. It seems that Scott Gustin, who covers entertainment, went to the opening of Avengers: Endgame a year ago, in Los Angeles. Like all of us, he had been waiting for this film for seemingly forever, but Scott did something I bet none of us did: he recorded the sound of the crowd reacting to the film. Cool, right?

Now, take a moment to visualize a year ago. No people trapped in their homes, worried about illness or financial uncertainty the likes we've never seen. Responding to Trump's latest with a roll of the eyes, rather than a frustrated scream. No overwhelming frustration leading to riots at state capitals. And no horrific illness, robbing us of friends and family, in a wave not seen in a century.

No, in this time, early April of 2019, we were watching Trump still bitch about his border wall. Over in Ukraine, a country most of us hadn't really thought about, they were electing a comedian as president, and we were marveling at it. Brexit was falling apart, Nipsey Hussle was shot and killed,, and NYC was banning single-use plastic bags. Y'know, Normal, sad as that was.

But, we had a beacon of hope: a collective escape, in the form of a movie we'd been waiting for: the conclusion to the Marvel superhero extravaganza, Avengers: Endgame. We'd been waiting for it for about a year, since Avengers: Infinity War left us on that bleak, horrific cliffhanger. But truthfully, we'd been waiting for it for over a decade, ever since we were first introduced to big-screen Iron Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I grew up with three major influences: videogames, comics, and movies. Along with my "brothers" Charles and Andrew Barletta, I made my weekly treks to the comic store and gorged on the impossibly great stories, convoluted timelines, and occasionally transformative art therein. Charles and Andrew shook their heads ruefully at me for picking up DC books, pointing out (accurately, I must say) that DC heroes were pretty unstoppable, so where was the fun? Marvel, now that was where it was at. It was the time of the X-Men, with Wolverine becoming this incredibly popular antihero, and the Punisher, bringing vigilantes to a whole new level.

It was the heyday of action heroes: Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Van Damme ruled the screens. Reimaginings of the loss in Vietnam through films like Rambo, Missing in Action, and Uncommon Valor played out. The Star Wars trilogy was the sun of the cinematic world; every other movie orbited around the Holy Trinity. In short, it was the stuff that teenage boys thrive on.

In 1993, Marvel decided to get into the movie business. Sadly, most of it's ventures were what comic fans like myself feared: those flawed heroes didn't translate well to the screen, while those old stalwarts at DC did fine with Batman and Superman. Even as there started to be signs of life with movies like X-Men and Spider Man, those were done by "real" movie studios who licensed the characters. But then something interesting happened: Marvel hired a guy who grew up in the same environment (literally; we lived a couple of miles apart and he was a few years younger) we had, and gave him the reigns.

In 2008, Robert Downey Jr., an Oscar-nominated ne'er do well actor, mostly known to the public as a potentially amazingly talented performer who was usually in rehab, jail, or behaving badly, came to the screen in Marvel's Iron Man. It was as close to a perfect translation of those Marvel comics as has ever been. The movie was action packed, funny, and thrilling, and RDJ was masterful. But what really knocked out the world was the ending, after the credits, after most of the audience had left, leaving only the happy die-hards like me in our seats. The credits finished...and something happened.

What. The. HELL?

Did I just see the hint of a shared universe? Is that Nick Goddam Fury? Not just Nick Fury, but the Ultimates version of Nick Fury (it's a comics thing; trust me)? Is that Samuel L. Jackson, the coolest man to grace the screen, playing Fury? WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE?!?!?

And it began. 20 movies later, with sequels, team-ups, and crossovers, we had arrived at the culmination with the last of the Avengers films with these actors and characters. We knew RDJ and Chris Evans were done with their deals, we weren't sure what Hemsworth was up to, but we suspected we'd seen his last as well. No, this was the emotional goodbye to these characters, these actors, these manifestations, with a storyline we were dying to see.

The premiere was scheduled. The crowds were gathered. The excitement was tangible, like an invisible energy you only felt when a Star Wars film came out (ok, maybe more than that, but it was the closest). The doors open, you take your seat, you gather your popcorn, you figure out what the hell you want to do with your coat (hold it? wear it?), and you realize everyone else in that theater is feeling exactly the same way, at the same moment, and you are connected to all of them. And as the house lights come down, Scott Gustin takes out his phone and starts to record.

And for nearly 3 hours, you see the culmination of not just Marvel's vision, not just Disney's greed, not just the director's storytelling, but the promises of those teenage years spent immersed in flimsy paper with garish colors, or in cramped theaters with shitty sound, watching men with poor speaking ability obliterate waves of bad guys. It was all here. This was it; the pinnacle. And every damned person in the theater was feeling the same. So when scenes like this happened:

Your skin tingled. Your every sense of joy leapt to celebrate. It was THE MOMENT. Nothing like it in the world. Scott just got the full audio from that day, a year later: listen to that crowd; that was every fan, every one who loved the spectacle of the movies, all over the world. I listened to it, and was transported, and it made me openly weep with joy at being able to relive that moment. I've rewatched the movie several times since then, but never felt that same emotional rush as the first, and I now realize it was the sharing with my fellow moviegoers that made it so.

And then, I cried again.Not for joy, or release, but because that world, that unique experience that so shaped me and so may, may be lost forever.

It was already under attack before CV19: we all have huge TV's with ultra HD screens and Super Dolby surround sound. We have streaming bandwidth that lets us binge entire seasons of shows in a single sitting. We can pause to go to the bathroom, or grab a snack. And movie companies are eager to feed us that content directly, cutting out the middleman of the theaters. The windows of time that a movie can be in the theaters exclusively before coming to smaller screens has been rapidly shrinking, leaving many to say "Eh, I'll wait until it's on demand."

The theaters themselves have tried to fight back, either with bizarre "4DX" experiences with shaking seats and water being sprayed at your face, like you were in some Disney theme park, not a temple of worship to the entertainment gods. They introduced subscription pricing, and were actually successful, but it was a war against global warming: losing wasn't a possibility; it was an inevitability.

And then a plague hit. Not just a plague, but one that actively is made worse when people gather together in tightly packed arrangements. One that causes a cough or a sneeze to be mass-panic inducing. One that forced every damned theater in this country (and most of the world) to close. It's a crippling blow, like an Avenger lining up that massive blast against Thanos. And theaters may well now be on the verge of the receiving end of this:

We've all discovered amazing streaming content in this lockdown, and some bad ones that we seem to not be able to resist. Movie studios took full advantage, releasing movies at premium prices that were either in the theaters pre-CV19, or were about to be. We've done the math, and realized paying $20 to stream a flick is cheaper than $15/ticket to the theater, and we don't have to pay for dinner out (remember those?) or child care. We can even have a drink or smoke if we want.

That sound you're hearing? Those are coffin nails being hammered. Yes, our post-pandemic world will change, dramatically. With change comes both opportunity and regret. The theater business is hardly the only industry facing extinction (retail, restaurants, nail salons...). But the movie theater experience is powerful, uplifting, and sometimes frustrating (shhh...trying to watch the movie), but it connects us to our fellow human on a visceral level that is rarely matched.

We can laugh.

We can cry.

We can surge with excitement and experience the thrill of an impending victory.

And of course the theater reaction to PORTALS was bonkers.
But in a theater, combined with those movies that speak to our primal emotions, we can do it together. Of course, theaters will not disappear; we'll always have a few as charming relics, like we preserved the drive in's (could have use those right about now), but I fear that they will join the nostalgic age, and I wonder what we will lose as a people. Maybe I'm wrong: we still have books, after all. I hope I am, honestly. Because my friend Charles Barletta still goes to every blockbuster movie opening the day it opens, but know he takes his son and daughters, and keeps that flame of wonder and joy alive. I know he's dying to get back to that theater seat, and I ache to be there with him, with you, with all.

Let's just hope we all get there. And soon. We all need and deserve it.


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