Moviegoers felt a mix of old-fashioned joy and Covid-era anxiety as they returned to the movies

Before the pandemic, Gabby Richards had never seen a Marvel movie. During the lockdown, she took the advice of a friend and hiked over 20 installments in the franchise – all from the comfort of her apartment in Washington, DC

But this summer, as multiplexes began to reopen and studios rolled out a handful of high-profile releases, Richards, 28, decided it was time to leave home and see his first Marvel epic – the Scarlett Johansson spin-off “Black Widow” – on the big screen.

“The Marvel movies weren’t created to be watched at home. They were created to be watched on the big screen,” said Richards, who saw the film at one of its local venues, the Regal Gallery. Place. “It hit me for the first time.”

Richards was one of the countless people who returned to the movies this year as some across the United States gradually returned to the familiar rituals of pre-pandemic life. In interviews, occasional moviegoers who have returned to the box office have described feeling drawn to the promise of an audiovisual performance, a respite from the monotony of 40s, or an escape from everyday stress.

In the hushed darkness of the theater, surrounded by rows of empty seats, Richards was gripped by the big-screen action scenes and booming sound design. She felt transported far, far away from the hum of the washing machine that usually accompanied her visits home.

Richards and other moviegoers have contributed to the success of blockbusters such as “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”, “No Time to Die” and the greatest release of the pandemic era: “Spider-Man: No Way Home, “which opened with North American ticket sales of $ 260 million.

Simu Liu as Shang-Chi in Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”. Jasin Boland / Marvel Studios

But not all potential ticket buyers were so excited to return to traditional cinemas. Faced with the omicron variant and renewed anxiety about breakthrough infections, many still feel that hanging out in a dark room with a group of strangers is too risky, even though some theaters require proof of vaccination. The spread of the variant could cause more problems for the industry in 2022.

The financial difficulties of the pandemic are also weighing heavily on much of the country. A night at the movies is a luxury that many simply cannot afford.

Christina Ortega, 34, a medical receptionist who lives in central California, shelled out around $ 115 to take her family to see the bloody action movie “Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City,” which lasts a little longer. ‘one hour and 40 minutes. Tickets for a morning performance were $ 15 each and snacks totaled about $ 55.

“You know, with my budget lately, I thought it was a little weird,” Ortega said. “I could have spent that money on groceries. But it’s not something we do every day, so I decided to go.

Ortega has not returned to the cinema since this release, instead catching up with new releases on streaming platforms.

The return to theaters hasn’t been without the occasional glitch, either.

Nicholas Jackson, a 34-year-old freelance writer who works in film production, relished Wes Anderson’s rich visual of “The French Dispatch”, but felt irritated each time he needed to remove his mask to take a look. sip of soda.

I really liked the movie, but the whole time I was on my nerves leaning on my poor husband’s seat and crushing him.

RACHEL BREW ON SEE “FREE GUY”

Rachel Brew, a 30-year-old woman who lives in North Carolina, enjoyed Ryan Reynolds’ comedy “Free Guy,” but felt uncomfortable sitting next to a young couple who refused to wear face covers.

“I would have liked to talk to someone in the theater and ask them to change seats,” Brew said. “I really liked the movie, but the whole time I was on the alert, leaning on my poor husband’s seat and crushing him.”

The experience soured her about the theatrical experience of the Covid era, and she said she was not sure whether she would return to a Raleigh area cinema “in the foreseeable future.” She can’t wait to see next year’s crop of Marvel movies, but expects her to wait until they land on Disney +.

Hollywood studios, for better or worse, have made it easier to bring new releases to your living room this year, shortening the traditional ‘window’ between theatrical engagements and video-on-demand debuts – or creating new titles. simultaneously in multiplexes and streaming. Warner Bros., for example, released its entire 2021 roster simultaneously in theaters and via HBO Max, giving viewers options: watch “Dune” on a colossal IMAX screen or stream “Dune” to an iPhone in a coffee shop – you decide.

Lena Funke, a student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, is certainly no stranger to Netflix and other big-name streaming services.

But she’s been away from home a lot this year, eager to turn off her smartphone and dive into a distraction. She bought tickets to over 20 films in the second half of the year, from horror films (“Candyman”, “Malignant”, “Antlers”) to aggressively marketed franchise offerings like “Ghostbusters: Afterlife “. (She keeps her ticket stubs and reads them courtesy of an NBC News reporter.)

The lingering threat of Covid-19 hasn’t been lost on Funke, 19, but that hasn’t deterred her from frequently venturing to her local venue, the Cinemark Fallen Timbers 14 in Maumee, Ohio.

“You can choose your seats before entering my theater. I tend to choose a seat further away from the others, and all the employees wear masks, ”she said. “I’m not really worried, personally. “

Young people like Funke played a key role in the return of cinema in the second half of the year.

“Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” a luscious comic book sequel, earned an unexpected $ 212 million thanks to strong participation from teens and young adults, for example; 56% of the public were people under 25. In general, Marvel’s grip on film culture has rarely loosened.

But older moviegoers were apparently more reluctant to return to multiplexes – and “adult dramas,” as they are called in the entertainment industry, have often paid the price.

“King Richard,” a well-reviewed tennis biopic anchored by a Will Smith performance at the Oscars, opened in North America with a paltry $ 5.7 million. (The film premiered simultaneously on HBO Max, which does not release audience data.) “The Last Duel,” a $ 100 million #MeToo fable starring box-bombed Matt Damon and Adam Driver- national office. (Seventy percent of the audience was over 25.) Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed cover of “West Side Story” has also underperformed so far.

Demi Singleton as Serena Williams, Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams and Will Smith as Richard Williams in “King Richard”.Warner Bros.

“The older audience is showing more concern about the pandemic, and you see it in the numbers,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, a company that tracks box office data.

Dergarabedian pointed out a few exceptions, namely “The French Dispatch” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming-of-age tale “Licorice Pizza”, two famous films by famous authors that drew large crowds in some theaters and landed some of the highest average screen revenue of the year.

In some ways, the box office trends of the Covid era – boom times for expensive, effects-driven shows; tough times for almost everything else – accelerated changes that were already taking shape before the pandemic. If you are concerned about the theatrical viability of films that are not tied to corporate-owned franchises, you have reason to be concerned.

But amid the industry anxiety and cultural turmoil, some moviegoers were just looking for a mental escape.

Hannah Ball, 28, one of two reporters for a small newspaper in Fenton, Mich., Left home in February to see a remastered version of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” by Peter Jackson in IMAX format with it. mom.

Ball had grown up watching the Three Fantastic Epics on personal video, but nothing could have prepared her for the greatness of Jackson’s vision when it was screened at the NCG Trillium Theater in Grand Blanc.

“It was such a big difference,” Ball said. “The giant screens. Surround sound. I felt like I was watching them for the first time.

Yet in the final minutes of the film, as Frodo bids farewell to his fellow Hobbits and leaves Middle-earth, Ball is overcome with familiar emotions. The musical score swelled and Ball collapsed crying in the dark.

“I couldn’t look away,” she said.


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