How do you decide when it’s the right time to embrace some kind of normalcy, while at the same time, respecting an ever-burgeoning health crisis? It’s been nearly 6 months since I’d seen a movie in the theater, which for me, is probably the longest stretch since I was 3 years old. I’ve said it before and meant it; growing up, the movie theater was my ‘church on Sunday’, my home away from home, and many (many) times my escape from reality. It still is. To have that all stripped away, along with vacations, ballgames, dinners out with my wife, and really everything ‘fun’ that could be done was… Well, a real fucking drag.
Just so we’re clear, this isn’t a ‘woe is me’ post. I understand and agree with the closures. I agree with masks. I agree with distancing. I agree with a huge portion of America that feels it was too little, way too late, from an incompetent President and administration. I also see the millions of unemployed, the increasing fatalities across the nation, and local business closing by the thousands. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t miss it, and long for it, and find myself in a long spiral of depression from not being able to do things I miss and love doing. I’ve told my kids that ‘work pays for vacations’, but when work is doing nothing but occupying every minute of every day, where’s the fun in any of that anymore?
So when is ‘too soon’? And when has it been long enough?
Two movie theaters opened in Western Washington this weekend, the Regal Cinema and Cinemark Theatres in Olympia. The local drive-in has been open off and on since lockdown restrictions lifted, but with a long string of sellouts of mostly 2nd run movies, I wasn’t comfortable going. For as much as I miss going to a movie, safety is still top of mind for a few reasons: 1) I’m not an asshole, and try to be respectful of the ‘rules’ of living in the COVID-19 age. 2) I have a family that depends on me, so the last thing I want to do is catch my death to see Russell Crowe in ‘Unhinged’ of all things.
My wife mentioned the week before that AMC Theaters were looking at opening across the country with 15 cent movies. She was shocked when I said that would be a ‘hard pass’ for me. As much as I miss going to movies, I have zero interest in going when a chain is doing everything it can to bring more people out instead of letting demand set the tone. I (half-jokingly) told her I would rather tickets were $50.
I hadn’t 100% decided to hit the theater, but my daughter was playing in a softball tournament with a movie theater so close that she could probably hit it with a ball if she hit it hard enough. I checked Fandango for tickets to ‘Unhinged’ and was surprised. The average showing had less than 4 tickets sold. The showing that matched when I could go was in a smaller auditorium, so even though there were only 4 people there, I opted to hit the bigger theater 20 minutes up the road that only had 2 seats sold.
Pulling up felt weird, a cautious excitement. It was like waiting at the airport for a friend you hadn’t seen in years. The parking lot was a ghost town, enough so, that you wouldn’t know the theater was open if the doors weren’t propped open, with signs taped to the box office window.
Going to the theater was as much about getting back to some kind of normalcy as it was a strange curiosity, a social experiment of sorts. I didn’t touch anything from the minute I walked into the theater, until the minute I sat down in my seat. Correction. I did grab a bag of popcorn, some Red Vines, and a pop. (Which sadly, was not Coke. WTF, Regal? I swear you had Coke when you closed!)
But was it safe?
Contactless entry, social distance markings at the concessions, every other row marked off for seating, and a minimum of 3 seats in between each party. Honestly? I felt safe. But I’ll say it was also planned safety on my part too. Would I have gone if the theater was at capacity? No. As it was, I was annoyed that a couple chose to sit in my row in a theater that was 99% empty. It felt like someone standing next to me at a urinal in an empty bathroom, and I actually moved over a few seats. (And honestly, I was more annoyed that the guy checked his phone a time or two during the movie. Seriously, dude, I guarantee you’ve been on your phone 24/7 for the last 6 months!) Counting me, there were 7 people at my showing. 2 in the very back row, 2 a few rows back, and the 2 that were in my aisle. That was it.
Some other observations:
- The biggest surprise was the lack of any kind of PSA prior to the show. Nothing reminding us to keep our masks on, to notify staff if people aren’t, etc. Equally surprising was that nobody came by to do a quick check during the show. Is that a lack of training or policy, or driven by the fact there were only 7 people in there, so it wasn’t going to be an issue?
- I felt safe, but I’m 99.9% sure they aren’t scrubbing arm/drink holders on the seats, so if that’s a concern for you, bring wetnaps. I went back in after the credits to take a peek. The guy was sweeping, but I didn’t see any sanitizer misters or anything like I see them do with shopping carts at the grocery store.
- If you feel safe going to the grocery store, you should feel safe going to a movie. There are more people at the gas station than there were in any of the showings I looked at. Again, if you’re concerned about distancing, do what I did, check the capacity and seat locations/vacancies before you go! As more theaters open, I will probably do more ‘game day decisions’ about seeing a movie based on capacity. In a ‘perfect world’ would movies be released same-day VOD? Yes. And I agree that viewers should have a choice right now.
- Did everyone wear their mask? Nope. The guy a few rows up from me didn’t wear it at all. But was I concerned? Not really, he was a few rows away and a few seats over. There wasn’t anyone in his zip code. Would I have been concerned if someone was two seats away from me not wearing a mask? 100%. But I also wouldn’t have booked tickets if the theater was that full.
- Did prices go up? Probably. But prices are always ridiculous. If you like going to the movies and miss the experience, you have 6 months of ‘savings’ from not going anyway, so treat yourself! (Just don’t expect Coke at Regal.) Oh, and prices are going up everywhere. I spent $9.99 on a Quarter Pounder meal at McDs the other day. Ouch!
- I sure hope they change the posters out sooner than later. It’s a little depressing walking through an empty theater filled with posters of movies that were supposed to come out this Summer.
Theaters are slowly opening, but things are still far from normal. I can absolutely understand the reluctance to go out and do things. Operate within your comfort levels, while respecting the health and well being of others. At the end of the day, don’t be an asshole about it. Wear you mask and be a good person, whether it’s at the movies, the grocery store, out to eat, or wherever. Do your best and we’ll get through it, eventually. In the meantime, it was a welcome escape.