Movies

Thank God That Even in the Pandemic, Hollywood Studios Are Focused on Making World-Class, Franchise-Based Content, Monetized in the Most Optimal Way Across Multiple Platforms

The Movie Club, Entry 8.

A blank movie theater marquee.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Justin Chang, Odie Henderson, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the previous entry here.

Dear fellow fiends for oily cakes,

It’s funny—despite the amount of hubris, not to mention ego, involved in Christopher Nolan’s campaign to be the savior of cineplexes, I just haven’t found it in myself to be quite as frustrated or as furious with him as some of you have (understandably) been. Did his desire to be the first big director back in theaters after lockdown wind up looking disastrously callous when lockdown never ended? Should Tenet have beat a judicious retreat to 2021, alongside so many other of this year’s would-be blockbusters? Yes and absolutely. And yet, what I keep thinking about is that utter lack of a plan Dana mentioned, and how it left so many businesses to calibrate an impossible balance between survival and public health all by themselves. There’s a restaurant around the corner from me that, like a lot of places around the city, has added plywood and plexi to the patio area it put up this summer, trying to make it more comfortable for diners as the weather turned cold. Now, surely lacking the airflow that’s the whole idea behind eating outside in a pandemic, it’s an outdoor space only on a technicality.

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It’s shitty that this is a thing, and that people partake in it, and that waitstaff have to be exposed to it. It’s also shitty that this restaurant and so many other eateries have been left with this as their best, or at least last, option to eke out enough revenue to hold on through winter. New York’s movie theaters closed in March, and they remain closed, but theaters were open in many other parts of the country, showing an increasingly peculiar slate of holdovers, oddities, and repertory titles. Should they have been open? Probably not! But the gym a few blocks away from me currently is, often with a line outside, and that doesn’t strike me as a particularly less chancy option. We didn’t shut everything down and pay people to stay home back at the start of the pandemic, and what we did end up doing varies capriciously from state to state, county to county. Nolan had no business encouraging people to go out to the movies, but at least he actually seemed to be thinking about the theater industry as one of the many that was hurting and likely to be permanently altered by the pandemic.

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Meanwhile, media giants like Disney and WarnerMedia made it clear that, for them, the future was in their streaming services. Sure, maybe Warner Bros. will go back to business as usual after the mess that was Tenet and then dumping its entire 2021 theatrical slate onto HBO Max—but it’s hard for me to believe that. And who could forget the soulful words of Disney’s Bob Chapek in October, when talking about the “direct to consumer” future of the company: “Our creative teams will concentrate on what they do best—making world-class, franchise-based content—while our newly centralized global distribution team will focus on delivering and monetizing that content in the most optimal way across all platforms.” Honestly, it’s not the prospect of losing giant chain multiplexes that depresses me about the seismic and seemingly inevitable shift that feels like it’s taking place. It’s the idea of everything being reduced to content to be consumed via your choice of conglomerate-owned tubes, like textureless future food.

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To finally answer your question, Odie, the last movie I saw in theaters before life ground to a halt in March was Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong, a 1997 indie that was only hitting U.S. theaters for the first time in early 2020, courtesy of the Metrograph’s distribution arm. It’s a stylish, intensely ’90s movie about a trio of teenagers who see no future for themselves, a feeling stemming both from their individual circumstances and the then-impending handover. I liked it an awful lot, though I’ve since retroactively infused the memory of that screening with signs and portents of what was to come. But the actual last movie I saw in a theater was … drumroll … Tenet. In September, a group of colleagues and I took a field trip to Milford, Connecticut, where theaters were open, to see the film, after booking a private screening for ourselves in the multiplex there for $150—a steal, and an offering I hope lives on in some form after all this (waves hands) is over. We sat scattered around the otherwise empty theater, masked and face-shielded, and we watched Tenet, and it was fine! The freeport fight was great, the car chase confounding if cool, the final battle impossible to follow and underwhelming. I thought it was very funny when the movie abruptly tried to grow a heart at the end, though Robert Pattinson’s slopey smile almost sold me on it anyway.

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But don’t listen to me—I’ve yet to revisit Tenet in screener form, and that first viewing was entirely overshadowed by the eerie novelty of driving to another state with all the windows down, then scurrying through a mall past an alarmingly bustling Buffalo Wild Wings to a abandoned-looking theater. As experiences go, it managed, in its own way, to feel as unsettlingly apocalyptic as the idea of a resentful future sending doom backward in time to erase the past. It also, I suppose, makes me the one out of the four of us least interested in sensibly prioritizing self-care over a doomed sense of completism. So Dana, I’ll end this round by asking you about the one movie that I did avoid watching for as long as possible—not because I thought it would be bad, but because I knew I’d end up watching it in bursts with my hands over my eyes. Did you ever expect that Sacha Baron Cohen would pull off what he did in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm? And how much did that movie make you long for a crowded, unsuspecting house to watch it with?

I was publicly humiliate,

Alison

Read the next entry here.

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