Column: Longest I’ve ever gone without stepping foot inside a movie theater

WTOP's Jason Fraley reflects on pandemic moviegoing

The coronavirus pandemic has upended our daily lives over the past six months.

For most, moviegoing is a luxury that’s far down the priority list of concerns right now, especially in an era of mounting deaths and a national reckoning with racial injustice.

These issues are way more important and should be treated as such.

Still, I find myself personally missing my livelihood and life’s passion: moviegoing.

It’s a pastime that marked my childhood growing up in Maryland, from seeing my first big-screen movie “The Land Before Time” at The Druid in Damascus, to the magical experience of holiday snow falling as we emerged from “Home Alone” in Frederick.

In high school, this same pastime got us kicked out of “Scream 3” for being underage in an R-rated movie, only to stumble into an unknown little film called “The Sixth Sense,” sinking in my seat in fear then emerging with my mind thoroughly blown.

In college, I learned to see in a new way with film theory courses on “The Searchers” and “Rear Window,” inspiring me to drive from College Park to Silver Spring to see “Lawrence of Arabia” in all its 70 millimeter widescreen glory at the AFI Silver Theatre.

And professionally, it’s brought a lifetime of memories, like the time West End Cinema mislabeled its rooms so that I accidentally saw “The Babadook” instead of “Force Majeure,” or the time I saw “Get Out” the day after covering the Oscar envelope gaffe.

Cut to Aug. 31, 2020 and I haven’t been to the movies since March 11. This is the longest I have ever gone in my life without stepping foot inside a movie theater. I’ve missed the communal experience of everyone laughing, crying and cheering together.

And yet, I’m not rushing back anytime soon. Thousands of coronavirus cases remain in our region. Everyone has their own comfort level in returning to normalcy, but due to high-risk members of my immediate family, my mantra is “better safe than sorry.”

“There’s this whole anxiety that we critics have,” Vulture critic Jen Chaney told WTOP. “Some studios are unwilling to send links for their major releases, which makes critics feel more pressure to enter a theater even if they have misgivings about it.”

Moviegoers face a similar dilemma, both in terms of safety and practicality.

AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas technically reopened nationwide on Aug. 20 with CDC promises of mask requirements, contactless payment, employee temperature checks, auditoriums sanitized by electrostatic “fogger” equipment and limited capacity of 50% that requires two empty seats between groups in the reservation system.

Still, these reopenings only apply to cities where state governments allow public gatherings. My zipcode still retrieves zero search results for nearby open theaters on Fandango, and while “New Mutants” opened over the weekend, it’s not playing in D.C. or Maryland, forcing folks to drive to either Virginia, West Virginia or Pennsylvania.

Over the weekend, 62% of U.S. locations were open, grossing less than $16 million. On the bright side, the economic ingenuity of Americans has been on full display with the revival of drive-in movie theaters at Wolf Trap, RFK Stadium, ALX Community and Alamo One Loudoun, as well as floating outdoor stages at The Wharf.

Hollywood will take whatever it can get after six months without revenue, crippling an industry that brings in $50 billion annually. It’s a summer blockbuster season without blockbusters, delaying “Black Widow,” “Wonder Woman 1984” and “No Time to Die” until the fall and “A Quiet Place 2,” “Avatar 2” and “Top Gun: Maverick” until 2021.

“The hardest thing is the uncertainty,” Chaney said. “That’s only going to intensify in the weeks ahead now that more theaters have reopened and COVID cases could potentially go up. Movies have been shifting dates a lot, which makes it hard to plan.”

The shifting release dates also make it hard for distributors to schedule.

“The problem is, we need their movies,” National Association of Theater Owners president John Fithian told the Associated Press. “Distributors who want to play movies theatrically, they can’t wait until 100% of markets are allowed open because that’s not going to happen until there’s a vaccine widely available in the world.”

The biggest holdout has been Christopher Nolan, who insists “Tenet” be seen on the big screen. The action flick opens in Northern Virginia this week, but as much as I’m dying to see it, I’m not dying to see it. Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday agrees. Instead, I’ll review Disney’s “Mulan,” which premieres straight to Disney+ on Friday.

It’s a model that has succeeded for other releases, starting with DreamWorks’ “Trolls World Tour” in April, Warner Animation’s “Scoob!” in May and Disney’s “Hamilton” in July, single-handedly boosting Disney+ downloads by 74%. Let’s also not forget Pixar’s “Onward,” which hit streaming on March 20 just a month after opening in theaters.

“It’s not as if movies stopped being released,” WETA’s Travis Hopson told WTOP. “In fact, there are more of them being released because they all open on equal footing. In a digital landscape, a would-be blockbuster is no better than an art house movie.”

The theatrical window continues to shrink as Universal and AMC agreed to reduce the time frame from 90 days to 17 days before a film can stream. That means if you’re still not comfortable seeing a movie when it opens in theaters, you can simply wait for it to hit on demand in a little over two weeks. For many folks, that might be worth the wait.

“I’ve found it to be pretty great, actually,” Hopson said. “I went to the movie theaters twice this week and realized what a time suck having to actually go is. It’s much easier, and obviously safer, to watch at home and it saves a ton of time during the day.”

In the meantime, New York Times film critic Wesley Morris has taken to regularly reviewing classic films, WTOP has ranked the Best Movies of All Time and local legend Arch Campbell has converted exclusively to streaming to prepare for his podcast.

“When the shutdown began, I watched a few independent films on cable,” Campbell told WTOP. “When I watched, I wished I was in the back row of the Avalon or Landmark instead of in my den. … I hate to say this, but I may find it hard to return.”

That’s because there is a plethora of original content streaming on Netflix (“Da 5 Bloods”), Hulu (“Palm Springs”), Amazon (“Vast of Night”), Apple TV+ (“Greyhound”), HBO Max (“Watchmen”), Peacock (“Saved by the Bell”) and Quibi (“The Fugitive”).

“In some ways, the process of reviewing movies has been easier,” Chaney said. “Because many movies have been streaming or going to VOD, I’m receiving even more links to screeners that allow me to watch from home, which saves me the time and occasional hassle of getting to and from a theater, paying for Metro or parking.”

Not only do we have more options, but the streaming services are also themselves reporting record numbers in viewership. In May, “Extraction” became the most-watched Netflix original film ever with 90 million viewers over four weeks, while “Tiger King” became a cultural phenomenon because we were all stuck inside our cages.

When we emerge from isolation will vary from person to person, a decision that has sadly broken down along political lines during the 2020 presidential campaign. We should all be coming together to face a deadly menace that has killed over 180,000 Americans, the equivalent of 9/11 every three days. Oh, how I miss the unity of 9/12.

“There’s the ethical quandary of whether reviewing a movie is a tacit suggestion that people should go to theaters when, depending on the audience’s willingness to mask up, it may not be safe,” Chaney said.

Alas, all we can do is take stock in what we are grateful for in our everyday lives.

My wife is a full-time musician, whose band can’t perform. Her second job is with a sound and lighting company, which can’t stage public concerts. Instead, I’ve watched her reinvent herself by producing virtual shows, building trucking websites, planning outdoor events and singing Disney songs for charity. She’s my hero during all of this.

Likewise, Campbell has enjoyed using his extra free time to take peaceful walks through the neighborhood with his wife Gina, joking, “Don’t cry for me, Arch and Gina.”

“I stumbled onto the no movie diet,” Campbell said. “Instead of attending two or three night screenings as I have for 40 years, I substituted a 90-minute walk after dinner every night. Six months have passed and I’ve lost 10 pounds. I feel and look better.”

As for me, I promise to keep finding cool streaming content to review and fascinating folks to interview on Zoom, from famous faces to local difference makers, highlighting the best virtual and socially-distanced entertainment from around the D.C. region.

Join me on this unique journey en route to the delayed Oscars on April 25, 2021.

Until then, I’ll see you “at” the movies.

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