If pressed for an opinion, I would say that I believe 2021 will be a better year for humanity than 2020 has been, based on a layman’s understanding of the current state of medical science, political and economic realities and human nature.
I would like to go beyond opinion and belief and state it as an assurance, but that would require predicting the future. Alas, despite decades of supportive family upbringing, fine public and private education and demanding work experiences, I somehow have failed to acquire skill in the arts and sciences of foretelling things to come. It’s fair to say I’m also highly skeptical of anyone who claims they can.
Too bad. Knowing with certainty that our species is going to survive the COVID-19 coronavirus mess would be a considerable comfort. The launch of campaigns to inoculate people with protective vaccines that proved safe and effective in advance tests surely is a good sign.
The ability of predict the future also would come in handy right now in my teaching activities at Webster University with undergrads who are studying film and television, many of them aiming to build careers in the fields. But these artistically overlapping, technologically evolving and commercially interconnected industries are in the midst of an upheaval triggered by the pandemic crisis.
Potential spread of the deadly virus adds serious health risks to attending indoor public gatherings of large groups of people – such as people going out to the movies.
Public health recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Washington, D.C., and a resulting patchwork of operational rules issued by some states and local governments have left nationally owned movie theater chains such as AMC and independent local theater owner-operators such as the Hi-Pointe Theatre and St. Louis Cinemas scrambling to institute practices that are consistent with the sometimes shifting rules and recommendations.
This has left people who love seeing movies in theaters – and who do so regularly – in a condition of uncertainty. We’re afraid of contracting COVID-19. We don’t know whether theaters are open or closed. If they’re open, we wonder what protective protocols are being practiced and which poor theater staffers are being assigned to try to enforce rules that some misguided customers resent and resist.
Nothing abhors uncertainty more than business, which, in this instance, particularly references the huge media conglomerates that own movie studios and archives, television programming and production systems, and network, cable and internet-based exhibition platforms. Yet they’ve contributed to the chaos by issuing, revising and then revising the revisions to scheduled release dates of new movies as ticket sales have understandably sunk.
Some have gone further, negotiating new contracts with theater chains. These deals cut back or eliminate the period of time, formerly two months or so, during which the theaters had exclusivity on new films before they jumped to various cable and streaming services.
These developments have led to “predictions of the future” – i.e., speculation – in which public movie theaters disappear. In this dystopian view, even people who preferred and were happy to pay for experiencing movies in theaters where they’ve long been made to be seen and heard will have to get used to screening movieish productions on oversize screens and lousy sound systems in undersize rooms at their homes.
Meanwhile, the conglomerized studios will crank out more and more entertainment filler suited to consumption via the personal electronic devices stuffed into people’s pockets, purses and tote bags.
A business story in Monday morning’s New York Times attempted to round up and sort out the impact of some of these new deals as they apply to the production and distribution of superhero-centric movies. See if you can make sense of it. I could not.
And maybe making sense is the key. Does it really make sense to predict the future, much less plan for it, based mainly on a present situation (the pandemic) that was itself unpredictable in its widespread economic and behavioral consequences?
Movies defied deaths forecast for them because of a worldwide Great Depression, World War II, the invention of television and its rapid penetration of all U.S. homes, cable, home satellite receivers and the internet.
In the film studies course I’ve taught at Webster for going on 12 years, we emphasize the artistic collaborations that make movies possible, the overriding priority the process places on emotional reactions by an audience and how filmmakers use elements of the former to achieve the latter.
The material we screen was generally created and crafted to be seen and heard by groups of strangers in big rooms with big screens and loud, clear sound systems that let everybody see and hear everything. The shared experience blots out the world for a few hours, immersing the people in their seats in a unique visual and auditory environment of storytelling.
These productions stir emotions that we feel in our hearts, not our brains. And the movies that manage to forge these universally human connections become specially ours, and we remember them for the rest of our lives.
Writer-director Aaron Sorkin may have said it better – no surprise — speaking Dec. 22 on “Hell & High Water with John Heilemann,” a podcast via iHeartRadio.
“The fear now — what the conversation is — will people go back to movie theaters?” Sorkin told host Heilemann.
“And I am clinging to the belief that they will, that nothing is going to replace the experience of being part of an audience, of everybody laughing at the same time, gasping at the same time, crying at the same time, being silent at the same time. People want that. The movies are what we do on Friday and Saturday nights. The movies are where we go on dates, what we do with our families, what we do over the holidays.
“Like I said,” Sorkin concluded, “I’m clinging to the optimist’s belief that once it’s safe, we will go back.”
Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. Contact him at [email protected]