Dim The Lights

In Defense of the Theatrical Experience

Justin Suttles
12 min readDec 17, 2020
Lancaster CA, 2017

The year was 2008. George W Bush was still president of the United States. And on a particularly sweltering afternoon in Florida, a less inhibited sixteen year old me waited in line with a few trusty cohorts, counting the seconds until the doors to the local AMC theater would open. The heat was no match for our joie de vivre as we stood in the sun, curious to see what this new guy Christopher Nolan had in store for us.

And then, the fateful moment; the megaplex opened, and the massive throng funneled into a bottleneck through the lobby that already smelt of popcorn butter (an anathema to me) and various assorted candies. This was before the time of pre-assigned seating and oversized plush theater recliners; the halcyon days of buying a ticket from a real human at the box office, receiving a physical stub, and walking into the dark theater confronted with a single, all consuming question; where will I sit?

Such a question laid before my friends and I as we scoured our options in the dark. Ultimately, we could have done a lot worse, settling towards the end of a row on the front-left quadrant of the auditorium. All I remember is the screen was massive, in a classically cinematic way — spanning upwards and outwards encompassing our complete periphery. Worth noting, this was not IMAX, (or LIEMAX, as I affectionately refer to AMC’s louche commodification of the brand) but rather, just a really big screen, with really big sound, and as I was soon to learn, would be a really big moment in my life as well.

You’ve probably guessed the film. And if you haven’t, here you go. Suffice it to say, what my mates and I experienced that day was the utter quintessence of cinema. 200+ moviegoers gathered together in that hallowed space, utterly enraptured for two hours (142 minutes to be exact).

We laughed at the right times, cheered at the right times, and everything in between. We experienced a glorious dialogue between medium and observer that was electric, transportive, and fleeting.

If you’ve ever witnessed an audience spontaneously erupting into applause, you know exactly the feeling I’m talking about. Needless to say, the alchemy of that screening solidified in my impressionable teenage mind the importance of collective cinematic movie-going as an institution and more to the point…

…as a cultural necessity.

Flash-forward to 2020; The world is a very different place indeed. There’s a worldwide pandemic, movie theaters are under siege, and the very filmmaker from my opening anecdote has taken to writing OP-ED pieces in the Washington Post defending the fundamental importance of movie-going as a cultural cornerstone. Have we all lost our minds?

The short answer is, yes. But at least streaming is having a good year…

In some ways, the virus has only functioned as a catalyst, laying bare certain ideas that have been festering beneath the surface, just looking for a cataclysmic Trojan horse in which they can sneak into the zeitgeist. One of the most prominent of which, is the narrative that for years now, we have been experiencing the prolonged death rattle of exhibition, and that COVID-19 is finally here to deliver the coup de grâce to the fledgling, reprobate theater industry that’s had the audacity to hang on this long.

This idea is nothing new. What is new is how prosaic it has become, and unfortunately, how misinformed it is. Ultimately, it seems to me like there are two main ways to look at this issue; from a business standpoint and a cultural standpoint. I shall now attempt to do both.

The simple truth is that the film industry is part and parcel with exhibition. As long as movies are made, the desire to experience them collectively will be there in some form or another, and where there is demand, there will be profit. I’m already seeing the trend back towards this direction.

Why would Indiewire market various ways to beef up your home theater system ahead of Wonder Woman, if there wasn’t an implicit awareness deep down in their Netflix-loving solar plexus, that the gold standard was and still is, I don’t know, a movie theater?

Even if you strip away any sentimental attachment to movie-going, the basic economics speak for themselves. For example, if we refer back to the film from my opening story, you’re looking at a single piece of work that turned a worldwide box office profit of $1,005,082,390, from a $180,000,000 budget. This is before home video, merchandising and subsequent streaming. If you factor in inflation, those numbers are nothing short of monolithic.

The Irishman, 2019

By contrast, the Netflix original The Irishman earned somewhere in the neighborhood of $38,000,000 for Netflix worldwide, also from a roughly $180 million budget, effectively losing nearly $280,000,000 once you factor in general marketing, and the specific marketing campaign for the Oscars. The Chicago Tribune published an excellent breakdown on how these numbers shake out, if you’re looking for some more robust analytics. Suffice it to say, Netflix is in the red for this particular film, which serves as a handsome admonition against placing event film expectations on a streaming service.

The simple fact is, despite Netflix’s steadily rising stock price, no single movie could manage tent-pole exhibition numbers on a streaming platform. Granted, the streaming model is a fundamentally different vehicle, aggregating profit-per-subscription, not profit-per-film. However you spin it though, the NET result is less profit per movie, not to mention limiting what free range potential the film does have, in lieu of blanket acquisition deals. From a financial standpoint, streaming and theatrical exhibition are different means to different ends, not to be conflated.

Alas, they are being conflated. Thanks, I suspect, in no small part to Warner Brother’s colossal decision to release their entire theatrical 2021 slate in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. Yes, you read that correctly.

The 2021 Slate

From a short term business perspective, I understand the need for a loss leader to recoup as much of their investments as possible amidst a global pandemic. They have films collecting dust on the shelf that are ready to go and they need some semblance of confidence that 2021 will be profitable, if for no other reason, than to make good with their financiers. At the present moment, it is the safe decision. It’s also a myopic decision, if you consider the seismic ripple effects this choice will have among the general public and the Hollywood cognoscenti alike.

Thank you internet, I understand now

In my circles alone, this news has engendered reactions, from filmmakers no less, that confound me..

Did I miss the memo?

I simply cannot understand the invective for such a beloved aspect of the industry to me. Where is this hatred coming from? Why are people so ready to abandon ship? As if the very concepts of movie theaters and streaming are mutually exclusive, and are ever shifting towards the latter.

How has this sentiment quietly risen to such prominence despite the general good will I’ve encountered towards the emotional sense-memory of seeing a great film on the big screen? I will hazard a guess —

For the longest time, there were movies and there was the lesser step child of movies, television. To move from television to movies was a massive vertical leap, and the inverse was also true. They were their own worlds that rarely cross-pollinated. Then, streaming came along and shattered that glass ceiling that told us TV was of lesser quality. Suddenly, name actors and directors were helming shows such as House Of Cards, Daredevil and Orange is the New Black. It challenged the notion of what it means to be cinematic, because historically, what is cinematic if not at the cinema?

House of Cards, Netflix

As awareness in this new and improved form of content increased, so did the commonly held fallacy that since streaming is of equal quality to cinema, it must therefore be the future of cinema. It’s the natural human impulse to pit one thing against another to see which one emerges victorious. Add one tablespoon of industry destabilizing pandemic to the mix, and voilà; theaters are irrelevant or even worse, dangerous.

Photo credit to Jay Janner

Speaking of which, I understand the collective reticence of going to the movies during the pandemic. Unfortunately, theater going as an activity is uniquely vulnerable to an airborne respiratory virus that renders any crowded indoor space as a potential super-spreader event. What I take umbrage with is the long term prognosis that theaters as an institution will never again see the light of day, and “good riddance! Who wants it anyways?”

Speaking in this way strikes me as more than a little sensational. I would like to suggest that theaters and streaming could work in concert with one another, instead of in opposition. But that certainly hasn’t stopped many tent-pole films from being sacrificed on the altar of streaming; a move designed to recoup some short term gains at the expense of long term viability.

“Warner Brothers had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out everywhere, and they are dismantling it as we speak. They don’t even understand what they’re losing. Their decision makes no economic sense, and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction.”

Christopher Nolan didn’t mince words in an unusually pointed statement to The Hollywood Reporter, referring to the basic principle of supply and demand. He went on to elaborate on the Happy, Sad, Confused Podcast, saying —

You have to create the sense of anticipation, as with every other industry, you control the supply and demand, you don’t throw everything out to everybody all at once and say “you wanted it, here you got it”. Every other industry, every other marketing department in the world, they understand that it’s all about supply and demand & controlling the release of those assets. Whether it’s a car company or a publishing company. You put out the hardback edition, then you wait before you put out the paperback edition. It’s basic economics.

From my perspective, this kind of business savvy is sobering in its simplicity, and vindicates the economic efficacy of theatrical exhibition. The simple and indisputable fact is that the hypothetical abandonment of movie theaters for streaming is leaving very real money on the table in spades.

Let us also dispel a few red herrings that are often cited when theaters are on the chopping block. Such as the notion that theater attendance is declining, which is simply fallacious. Just take a casual gander at BoxOfficeMojo to rule out that idea. Like any industry, the film business waxes and wanes. But at the end of the day, it’s dependent on the movies that come out in a given year (looking at you Avengers Endgame). That’s just the nature of the business.

Let us also reevaluate the grievance that ticket prices are skyrocketing at an untenable rate, making movies a less desirable pastime. The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) maintains that ticket prices have remained relatively static once you account for inflation (the average ticket price of $2.23 in 1977 was roughly $9.26 once adjusted) discrediting the “when I was your age, I could go to the movies for a nickel” argument.

The economic reality is that fluctuations in price are due to the strength of the marketplace, as well as the demand for IMAX and other premium formats. The more people spend, the more the average cost of going to the cinema increases.

Even a cursory glance at the analytics quickly reveal the reality that theatrical exhibition doesn’t align with the narrative of its economic irrelevancy. It’s a real bait and switch. But at the end of the day, numbers are numbers are numbers, and movie-going is about so much more than that.

Credit to Ten Stars Or Less movie reviews

Economic impact to stakeholders is only one aspect of corporate social responsibility. Finding ways to enhance culture is another. So, just as I have both a fiduciary and creative responsibility to fulfill as the filmmaker, I call on AT&T to act swiftly with the same responsibility, respect and regard to protect this vital cultural medium.

Director Denis Villeneuve spoke candidly in a lacerating indictment of Warner Media’s streaming decision published in Variety on December 10th. His sentiment is echoed across the industry, as filmmakers lament the current state of affairs and theorize what will happen next. As Christopher Nolan commented on the Happy, Sad, Confused podcast —

All I hear these days is “Can exhibition survive these awful circumstances”, and I’m beginning to feel like the more apt question is can the studios survive?

An apt question indeed, and one that seems to be at the front of everyone’s mind among the Hollywood elite. To this point, David Fincher was very candid in a recent interview with the Sunday Telegraph Newspaper.

The reality of our current situation is that the studios don’t want to make anything that can’t make them a billion dollars. None of them want to be in the medium-priced challenging content business.

A certain disillusionment with the studio system certainly seems to be proliferating amidst the industry in many circles, which raises some interesting speculation about the future home for some of our biggest industry icons. Could we see an American Zoetrope redux? A mass exodus from the BIG 5, in search of a new model more in line with public tastes?

Ruby Cinemas, Franklin NC, 2020

Despite my wailing and gnashing of teeth, I’m actually optimistic about the future of movie-going. In the short term, however long we’re saddled with the theater/streaming duality, it may actually improve the experience; effectively weeding out the texters and talkers, in favor of the people that actually want to be there. C’est magnifique!

The long term is more nebulous, but I’m no less bullish. Since this year began, and the infernal whispering of cinema’s impending heat-death started to circulate, one thing seemed readily apparent; that’s not gonna happen.

Though the paradigm may shift, the institution of movie going will endure…From the ancient amphitheaters of Greece to the Globe Theatre in London, collective communal storytelling has been around as long as we have. And despite the uncertainty of the moment, I believe it will prevail in some form long after we’re gone. It is an essential aspect of how we make sense of the world as a culture.

The Epidaurus Amphitheatre
The Globe Theare

As a filmmaker myself, I’ve had my own limited experience with the exhibition of my work. I’m here to tell you, I didn’t languish through 4 years of film school to send my graduating class an online screener of my senior thesis film. It’s all about the communal showcase, the collective experience. Such is indicative of movie-going as a whole.

Thomas Meighan Film Festival, 2015

If the films we make are the currency we deal in, public exhibition is the gold standard we back it with.

Even if the megaplexes vanish, if the AMCs and the Regals go the way of the dodo, I predict a new theater chain will rise from the ashes. Something more boutique, less garish and more attuned to our cultural appetites. But one thing will remain beautifully constant, even when the pandemic is a distant memory; the silver screen, and the experience of watching a movie on it with 200 of your closest friends, as I did on that fateful afternoon in 2008.

The movie-going experience is like no other. In those darkened theaters films capture our history, educate us, fuel our imagination and lift and inspire our collective spirit. It is our legacy. Long live theatrical cinema!

Well said, Denis. I will not be watching DUNE on HBO Max.