year in culture 2021

The Movies Are Gonna Be All Right

I gave Spider-Man: No Way Home a lousy review, but even I’m happy to see it doing well. In fact, I’m flat-out optimistic about the future of movies. Photo: American Stock/ClassicStock/Getty Images

You’d think the mind-blowing box-office performance of Sony’s Spider-Man: No Way Home this past weekend would be good news for just about everybody. The film’s unprecedented $260 million bow represented the second-biggest opening of all time behind Avengers: Endgame’s $357 million. (No Way Home has already made $750 million globally after barely a week in theaters.) Superhero-movie fans, of course, were happy. Theater owners, who’ve had a rough couple of years, were definitely happy. “Hey prophets of doom,” Adam Aron, CEO of the much-beleaguered AMC Theatres chain, tweeted Monday to those who’d claimed streaming would kill movie theaters. “#CHOKEonTHAT.”

Still, some were (understandably) worried. For those who’ve watched the slow death of movies made for adults over the past decade-plus, the problem wasn’t so much that a superhero flick was making so much money but that other big releases were crashing and burning all around it. Guillermo del Toro’s star-studded period noir Nightmare Alley, reportedly the most expensive movie Fox Searchlight ever bankrolled, opened to a paltry $3 million that same weekend. Steven Spielberg’s critically serenaded West Side Story, fresh off its disappointing $10.5 million opening the previous weekend, declined 68 percent to $3.6 million. Here, in seemingly stark and undeniable terms, was the pop-cultural dystopia many had feared: comic-book tentpoles obliterating anything that isn’t a comic-book tentpole out of the marketplace. (There were even reports of theaters informing ticket-holders they were canceling screenings of Nightmare Alley to make room for more showings of Spider-Man. That’s a bit on the nose there, reality.) Maybe the pandemic had merely accelerated an already worrying, potentially irreversible endgame: Goliath, triumphant — forever and ever.

The doomsayers should relax, at least for a minute. I gave Spider-Man a lousy review, but even I’m happy to see it doing so well. A lot of movie theaters just had the best weekend in their histories. For those of us who’ve been hoping for those theaters’ survival, that is legitimately good news. It may not be sustainable, to be sure: One of the problems of relying on a small handful of big titles for all your revenue means that if and when those big titles start flopping, you’re immediately screwed. But a success like this was necessary — the equivalent of an antibody treatment to combat a deadly disease.

And on a micro level, there are glimmers of hope all over the cinematic landscape. Throughout the summer and fall of 2021, I found myself floating from theater to theater in New York, surprised at the level of turnout. Often it was repertory screenings of beloved classics like Do the Right Thing or North by Northwest or John Carpenter’s The Thing. Discussions with theater managers and programmers confirmed this observation. “I’ve been amazed at the audiences, frankly,” Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at Film Forum, told me. Ever since the theater reopened its doors earlier this year, he’s been programming a steady stream of rep-house warhorses as a way to ease viewers back in. “I call them comfort movies or audience pictures — familiar titles people know,” he says. “They’re itching to get back into the cinema and see classics. There’s no controversy over whether Rear Window is fun or not! They know they’re going to have a good time.”

It makes a certain amount of psychological sense, but it’s also a little surprising because such movies are generally widely available via streaming and home video. When screenings of Casablanca are selling out (as they did this year at Film Forum during its Humphrey Bogart festival, another big hit), it’s about more than people wanting to see Casablanca; it’s about people wanting to be around other people as they watch Casablanca together. Believe it or not, this is somewhat analogous to the phenomenon of people coming out in droves to see Spider-Man and a nostalgic assortment of old, recognizable villains. In troubled times, we’re all drawn to the comforts of the familiar.

Meanwhile, the new-release landscape has been more uneven. But even on that front, just two weeks ago, you could come across any number of sold-out screenings in New York of Licorice Pizza or Drive My Car. Friends who tried to game the system by attempting to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest at sure-to-be-sparsely attended morning and late-night shows were shocked to discover themselves stepping into packed theaters. Obviously, not every city is New York or Los Angeles, and there’s still a long way to go before everything can return to normal. A highly contagious new COVID variant hitting right in the middle of the holiday movie season certainly isn’t helping matters either.

But here’s why I’m more optimistic than I’ve been in a long time.

In the early months of the pandemic, sizable groups of allegedly smart people thought that movie theaters were not only doomed but that they maybe even deserved to die. The thinking was that a bright future of streaming services beaming any picture we might want to our couches was far preferable to a world in which we went out to see films in theaters on big screens among our (chatty, disgusting, possibly virus-ridden, probably politically suspect) fellow humans. As I’ve written before, that sort of thinking has consequences beyond whether your local multiplex survives or not. Making ourselves slaves to solitude and convenience has all sorts of ramifications for our cultural and social well-being. If we can’t be around each other anymore, we are no longer a society, a country, a civilization. We’re just pod people jacked into the Matrix.

To be clear, this isn’t about whether we can or should enjoy movies at home. Of course we can! It’s about whether movies should be enjoyed only at home. Because if theaters die out, that’s what we’re getting whether we like it or not. And cinema cannot survive without theaters. Without them, it becomes TV, a completely different art form.

It’s not like the people who foresaw a future without theaters were going around trying to bankrupt cinemas. They just assumed that after a few months to a year of no movie theaters, we would all realize we didn’t need them. Well, we’ll be hitting two years of pandemic in less than three months, and almost nobody is spewing this streaming-über-alles nonsense anymore — at least not in public. Maybe because after trying it out for a while, we’ve come to realize that a lifetime spent on our couches is neither feasible nor desirable. Maybe because losing things sometimes makes you appreciate them. Maybe because 2020 and early 2021 were an inadvertent test run for our theaterless, benevolent-cocoon future … and it was fucking horrible.

It turns out people like going to the movies. And they like movie theaters. And No Way Home’s numbers are the most obvious example of this. The film’s success is about more than just curiosity over Spidey’s latest adventure or getting ahead of spoilers or even the nostalgia factor of seeing Dr. Octopus and the Green Goblin again. The film’s box office didn’t just trounce that of every other movie released in 2021 or 2020; it also trounced that of the previous Spider-Man movie, Spider-Man: Far From Home, which needed a whole six days over an extended July 4 holiday in the virus-free summer of 2019 to get to its first weekend total of “just” $185 million. Again, No Way Home made $260 million, and this wasn’t even a holiday weekend. Plus there was a new variant tearing its way through the country’s biggest theatrical markets. When the numbers are that big in the face of such challenges, it means there’s something else going on.

For a lot of people, No Way Home likely represented a return to the movies after what had been for many of them a very long hiatus. Whatever the quality of the picture, I’d like to think at least some of these viewers felt that same electrifying jolt I felt earlier this year when I went to see A Quiet Place Part II as my first film in theaters after many, many months. Holy shit, I remember thinking. How in God’s name could we ever think an experience this exhilarating would ever go away? No joke — for a couple of hours after seeing A Quiet Place Part II, I entertained the possibility that A Quiet Place Part II might be the greatest movie ever made.

There’s still obviously a lot of work to be done. No year is a monolith, and this one is even less so. The box-office fates of films have waxed and waned all year long with constantly changing pandemic realities — be they related to vaccinations, new variants, streaming availability, disposable-income issues, age-group concerns, or a chaotic calendar. (And let’s not even get into how much the insane, constantly shifting release schedule has cost studios.) Up until last weekend, the general assumption was all box office this year had been soft because of ongoing pandemic concerns. Even this year’s other superhero movies — some released exclusively to theaters, some released concurrently on streaming — hadn’t done as well as many had hoped. But No Way Home’s gargantuan box office, which would have been eye-popping even in normal times, upended that thinking.

Still, all of these things can be true at once. The big films that did well this year — No Time to Die, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, F9 — did well primarily because they appealed to young males, the demographic most willing to go out to the movies this year. A lot of people who would like to go to theaters remain reluctant to do so. The numbers show many older moviegoers and female viewers make up a significantly smaller portion of the audience than they have in the past. That would explain why a title like West Side Story — a musical that was probably never going to be a massive hit to begin with — has already been deemed a flop. It may also explain why a period noir like Nightmare Alley was unlikely to set the box office on fire. And families have yet to return to theaters at the rates they once attended. That’s why a film like Disney’s Encanto, which in the Before Times would likely have been a big hit even if it were terrible (it’s not — it’s delightful), has made less money than freaking Free Guy. The fact that boutique releases and massive blockbusters seem to be doing better still leaves the ongoing question of whether medium-budget movies, already on life support, can ever make a comeback or if they’re just destined to become Netflix one-offs.

These remain important concerns, but they are all secondary to the simple fact that we can’t save movie theaters if there are no movie theaters left to save. No Way Home’s success is not the bloody climax of a battle between different types of movies. It’s an important victory in the continuing battle to save all movies.

The Movies Are Gonna Be All Right