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The first R-rated film I officially saw in theaters was Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as part of a joint birthday celebration with one of my best friends from high school. The room was packed almost to capacity since it was close to the release of the film, and everyone was writhing with excitement to see two legends like Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt on the same screen together. I remember how it felt to have a group of some of my closest friends all scrunched up with me in the seats, overwhelmed with the scent of freshly buttered popcorn and the sound of bubbling Cokes. I can still hear the excited screaming and yelling that escaped from every single person in that room towards the end of the movie (no spoilers here), and it was easily one of the best experiences I’ve had in a movie theater, and perhaps one of the best experiences of my entire life.

It feels odd to talk about this moment as if it was so long ago when it feels like it was just yesterday. Of course, streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and others had already slowly begun to replace theatrical releases, but this was all accelerated with the emergence of COVID-19. It also replaced the moment of sharing a story and experience through the screen with close friends, family, and even strangers. 

Since the pandemic, movie theaters and filmmakers alike have had to adjust. For example, Regal Cinemas had to temporarily close all 536 of its theaters back in October to cope with the financial stresses of the pandemic, and AMC Theatres had to significantly reduce the prices of tickets and create new deals as a result of the drop in demand of theatre-goers. Additionally, a large number of movies have been pushed back years beyond their initial release dates, the Academy Awards have been postponed this year, and Christopher Nolan penned a notable Washington Post op-ed on the devastation movie theaters are facing in reaction to HBO Max’s theater and their streaming release deal. 

Don’t get me wrong, streaming has saved our lives, especially during this difficult time. There’s a collective spirit that’s developed through the Zoom screen in the all-too-dreaded breakout room when everyone can bond over shows like The Queen’s Gambit or Bridgerton instead of dragging out awkward discussion questions. 

But there is something magical about the theater that so few other public establishments foster in their own environments, and no theater is the same. You might get to play a few arcade games in one, get a kid’s bundle of popcorn and chewy fruit snacks in another, or simply sneak a kiss with your partner in the back of a dark room while a romantic scene plays. And what’s most beautiful is that you blend intimately with the other people in the room, no matter how long you’ve known each other, feeling moved by a story that is heart-wrenchingly dramatic or a gut-punching comedic interpretation of the human experience. 

The theater is the place where I established that I wanted to be a filmmaker, a writer, an actor, an entertainer, like so many others. I solidified this when I saw La La Land, which sounds quite cheesy, but the experience I had with that movie and with the theater I saw it in is something that is ingrained in my memory for my entire life. There is something mysterious about the screen – how you get on it, what stories to tell, whose stories to tell. What is behind the mischief of a mad scientist who steals plutonium for his time-traveling DeLorean, the humble nobility of the King of Wakanda, or the silent Italian man who can make you an offer you can’t refuse? These are all questions the theater has made us ask ourselves at one time or another, but the real question is, when can we find ourselves in one comfortably and safely again?

The answer lies within us. I don’t like to be too cynical when it comes to movie theaters, but I think we will all be starving for a sense of community and normality when a vaccine is sufficiently circulated once again. Opening theaters and supporting them would result in new jobs, renewed forms of entertainment, and a means for everyone to find and present new stories based on the experiences we’ve all shared during this difficult period. 

In the meantime, there are other ways you can get the feel of a movie theater but in a safe and healthy way. Try to visit and support a local drive-in theatre (if one is in your area!) and have a vintage night out, or even set up a backyard movie picnic with your family or a small circle of friends. It’s important to keep the spirit of movie-going alive in any way possible to pay homage to the golden days of the theater, so that one day, we can hopefully return to the way it should be.

Caroline Val

Columbia Barnard '24

Caroline is a first-year at Barnard hoping to major in Psychology and English with a concentration in Film Studies. When not advocating for mental health awareness, she's also extremely involved in all things theatre, film, and writing (especially poetry). She can be reached on Instagram @cxrol.v!
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