You may have noticed a number of articles over the last few days about the reopening of movie theaters in the United States and across the world. You may have also noticed that with each article there’s a theme; movie theaters are banking on Christopher Nolan’s Tenet being released in July. Over the last few months COVID-19 has wreaked havoc across the world; destroying lives, families, and businesses. Few businesses have been impacted as much the film industry — movie theaters in particular. The largest theater chain in the world, AMC Theatres, is on the brink of bankruptcy. Cinemark states they can make it to the end of 2020 but no further. So what do Christopher Nolan and Tenet have to do with any of this? It appears movie theaters are hoping to reopen as early as July, and Tenet is the first big release still scheduled for this summer. While virtually every major summer release has moved to fall or even 2021, Tenet has held firm on July 17 — just 3 months from today.
Last month Christopher Nolan wrote a wonderful op-ed for The Washington Post about movie theaters being a vital part of American life — I highly recommend giving it a read. But even before writing that piece, Christopher Nolan has long been a champion of the theatrical moviegoing experience. The filmmaker has not only shot all of his movies on film, but each one has had theatrical runs presented on film. That’s not something many — if any — current filmmakers can say. Nolan is also known for his love of IMAX, both as the premiere capture medium, and as the premiere theatrical experience. And with essentially every big studio release being pushed back, it certainly is curious that Christopher Nolan’s Tenet has not.
As governments around the world start making guidelines for reopening business and public life, movie theaters are being included in many phase one plans. Not only that, movie theaters have their own plans. Aside from strict social distancing guidelines, exhibitors are planning various roll outs of releases. With the entire summer slate being cleared, many plan on showing previously released blockbusters that moviegoers would love to see again on the big screen. However, playing previous box office hits will only get them so far, so that is why many theaters are hoping Tenet doesn’t push back its release date. Chains like Cinemark are banking on Nolan’s tentpole filmmaking style to prop up their limited summer earnings, and they’re hoping audiences are hungry for a new, fresh summer blockbuster as well. But are audiences willing to show up?
Although a lot can change over the course of 3 months, it is the opinion of this film fan (and Nolan fan) that July might be too early. How would strict social distancing guidelines work at a movie theater? Reducing capacity of theaters 50% will likely not be enough. Seating in many theaters, especially those that have not upgraded to luxury recliners, is closer than the 6 ft distancing guidelines health officials have been recommending. So can theaters operate and survive off of the 20-30% capacity that would likely be needed for the interest of public health? And what do things like concessions and theater bars look like? With the wearing of masks becoming not only the norm, but a requirement in many areas, can you safely wear a mask at a movie theater? Relying on the theater patron eating popcorn and laughing next to you is a risky proposition.
With all of the questions around what seeing a movie in a movie theater looks like currently unanswered, there’s still another question to think about; Is this how you want to see Tenet? Sitting in a theater that’s potentially 2/3rds empty, being afraid to have your favorite movie snack, and not being able to sit next to your friends and the ones you love? It is vital to do what we can to save the industry that allows for the art form we love so dearly, but perhaps there is a better way.
Christopher Nolan is right afterall. The moviegoing experience is an indelible part of American life. It is something so many of us — from every nation — are not ready to say goodbye to. So how can we support the theaters we love so much? Perhaps it is by continuing this conversation. Or writing your local member of congress. Or maybe it will be by patronizing your local theater when they reopen. Or all of the above. Are theaters hoping Christopher Nolan and Tenet save cinema? Perhaps. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to not only save movie theaters, but the film industry as we know it. And it is the deepest wish of this filmgoer that I get to see you all at the movies as soon and safely as possible.