In the Defense of Movie Theaters

Even if you’ve never set foot in a movie theater, you know one thing about them: they’re expensive. I could never make it through the ticket line with my family without my dad making some offhand comment about how movies used to cost a nickel (or some other absurdly low amount of money) to the cashier. The teenager––making minimum wage to get yelled at by adults––would smile and nod and roll their eyes. We’ve all been there.

And sure, 11 bucks for a two-and-half-hour movie that may or may not live up to the hype might seem like a waste to some people. If you really wanted to see it, there’s surely some way to rip it off some sketchy website and watch it for the price of a virus or two. But there’s something magical about the theater. When you’re able to get past the unreasonable price of popcorn (if you’re a dad, this might prove impossible, I get it), going to the movie theater on the first day of a showing is truly something remarkable.

Let me take you back. The year is 2017. I am a junior at Olympia High School standing in line (and purchasing an Icee and the large popcorn) for Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Right now, I only know him preferentially as one half of “Key and Peele” from Comedy Central––he’s funny sure, but horror is a whole different animal. Nevertheless, this movie has a reputation that precedes it.

With headlines like “Jordan Peele’s Get Out Makes Racism Scary!” (yikes), the film had a certain intrigue. The novelty of Paranormal Activity has worn off, and The Conjuring movies were never really that scary.  At this point, we’re in a lull in terms of good horror movies. There was a lot riding on this.

A comedian making a horror movie starring black actors and the villain is racism? Nobody in that theater knew what was about to come next. It was packed to the brim––notably filled with interracial duos and everyone chatting like we were old friends. The lights dimmed and the credits rolled. The creepy intro music subsided into “Redbone” by Childish Gambino. The world of entertainment was never the same.

You could argue that it was Jordan Peele alone (and trust me, he did his part for Hollywood) who created this magic, but Get Out simply wouldn’t have been the same if I had seen it even a moment later.

Horror movies break all the rules of theater etiquette. You can scream, cry, jump out of your chair, grab your neighbor’s arm. You can whisper, “Oh shit!” and nudge the stranger sitting next to you. You can boo if it’s bad and even throw popcorn at the screen if it seems like the writers just told the actors to wing it.

Get Out is the perfect example of a movie made to be seen in the theaters. From the first frame of the film, we knew this movie was different. Scored with popular music from the last year, the film was a culmination of pop culture and completely revolutionary ideas. With only the vague headlines in the media about the film, we were able to experience the movie with almost no preconceived notions about what it was going to be.

The now iconic twist (which I won’t spoil for those who have yet to see the movie) went down in film history, but we saw it before anybody else in that mall theater in Olympia, Washington. Okay, so Century Theater is no Sundance, but the minute we left the theater, we couldn’t help but agonize over every detail. Spoilers included. By the time the movie was a month old, pretty much anyone who was paying attention knew how it ended.

Years later from Get Out’s premiere and the film set a precedent for horror––scary movies were going to be good again. Jordan Peele veered away from gimmicks and clichés (something horror is notorious for) in exchange for something with depth, nuance, and an element of unpredictability.  But when I watched it for the first time with friends, many of them claimed they saw the end coming. It’s not because they’re somehow smarter than I or have outwitted the writers, they just knew the cultural context.

On that first night in the theater, nobody was expecting a twist of any kind. A horror movie that was not only not racist but actively dismantled the white moderate felt like something completely new. The fact that a black director was being taken seriously in a genre already excluded from Hollywood conversation, that was shocking on its own.

Movie theaters provide a venue for viewers to witness history and culture enmesh. In a room full of people I’d never met before, we saw something that changed the way people will make movies for the rest of our lives. We gasped and laughed and cheered with the unfiltered reactions of an audience that truly didn’t know what was coming. No phones, no distractions. No pausing to pick up missed details. We watched the movie exactly how Peele intended us to.

Coming from a small town, movies served as the backdrop for my teenage years. On the painfully short list of things to do in Olympia, my friends and I could always count on seeing the newest blockbuster in the theater. Sure, many of the movies were duds. (I can’t say I’m glad I wasted a couple of hours seeing Cats on its opening weekend, although I certainly won’t forget the terrifying half-human claws on Judy Dench.) I’ll still note the particularly awful movies as a certain kind of rite of passage.

Quarantine has given me a time to reflect, and more importantly, a time to catch up on all the movies I didn’t have the chance to see in theaters. Though I’ll happily give an afternoon to The Godfather or Scream, movie theaters force me to slow down. You spend time with a friend, getting dinner and talking about your expectations for the movie. You show up, argue about seats, get too much butter on your popcorn. You talk through the movie if it’s bad, sit in silence if it’s good, listen to the soundtrack on the way home. The theater presents us with a unique opportunity to slow down and appreciate the works of art that were tailored specifically for our enjoyment. All I’m saying is that once this quarantine is over, my first stop will be to the movies to see everything I’ve missed.