Why movie houses matter, now more than ever


The ongoing pandemic continues to threaten the traditional movie-going experience as most theaters around the country remain closed. Major chains, including AMC Theaters and Regal Cinemas, carry the bulk of the public’s hopes on their backs. If they fall, so does a large portion of the theater exhibition business. While news headlines report on reopenings and market summaries, hundreds of individual independent and art house theaters are strategizing their return to the communities who depend on them.

Have you ever thought about the disappearances of small, independent cinemas? What if they no longer existed? Who would feel the ripple effects? Certainly not the entire country. But how about factions of surrounding neighborhoods, from teenagers to senior citizens, who seek their local movie theater as their refuge? Lately, society has challenged its own values of tradition and institutional preservation for future generations, questioning what deserves to be passed down to future generations and what should be torn down. Sharing a cinematic experience inside of a public theater, surrounded by strangers, may seem more and more obsolete for the modern individual who is told to remain distant and stream movies at home. 

Even before March, I’d hear folks from older generations lament the death of movies as if they were no longer being made — but they are — in all sizes and genres. And there’s room for all voices; from Ava DuVernay to Martin Scorsese to Rhys Ernst to Guillermo del Toro.

And if you need to delve a little deeper beyond the most celebrated contemporary names? Low-budget features, documentaries, international works, classics, and even films without distribution all live in independent and art house cinemas. These passion projects, otherwise neglected, receive the chance to foster an audience outside of the corporate complex. 

The freedom to choose which films are exhibited in a theater is a rarefied freedom among each organization. Many of these establishments are supported by the surrounding communities who treat their local theater as their sanctuary, their educational institution, their social life, their happy place, their retreat from the world. The loss of a small, community-based cinema is deep for an American public feeling more isolated and polarized from one another than ever before. 

You may not be aware of this, but independent and art house movie theaters are home to some of the quirkiest humans in our society, but there has simply never been a memorable movie made about a theater staff and its inner workings. Hollywood has produced amusing stories about day-to-day life inside record stores, book stores, video rental stores, bars, retail stores and other establishments that serve the public, but never about a movie theater. Why? Perhaps because movie theater employees are like the factory workers in Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” or in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” Why would anyone care how 35mm film gets projected or how the popcorn gets popped? Life inside of a theater isn’t like “Cinema Paradiso,” but they still create magic, and remain a home for misfits and romantics who search for escapism.

I worked at independent and art house theaters throughout my late twenties and early thirties, alongside an assortment of characters: encyclopedic movie geeks, artists, nonconformists, ivy leaguers, college dropouts, misanthropes, soul-searchers, egomaniacs. Each of us dreamed of being part of the movie business, in some capacity. Maybe its tradition has continued to inspire us to carry a torch. Maybe none of us wanted to wear suits or ask “Can I take your order?” for the rest of our lives. Or maybe free movie tickets made up for low wages. Whatever our reason is for working at a movie theater, we all believe in the promise it offers customers — the chance to feel part of something greater than the small city or town you live in. 

Across the country, many art houses have struggled to maintain diversity among staff. Sometimes, as a multiracial American of Indian, Puerto Rican and Italian descent, I’ve felt like a token minority or a checkbox for grant purposes. However, I’ve found that inclusion is finally being taken seriously in smaller organizations as old guards begin to step down or retire, and new generations of gatekeepers welcome a range of faces and voices to represent their organizations.

Similar to museums, art houses place a high priority on its curators. At some theaters, programmers lose sight of their love of movies and become consumed by their own authority, alienating average moviegoers in the process. Believing they are the key holders and tastemakers of cinema’s past, present and future, they create a realm of film snobbery and decide what deserves to be seen and re-seen. As with some film critics, when elitism corrupts their perspective, it becomes too evident that the magic has left their hearts. But for programmers who prioritize the public, who offer a variety of titles for the encouragement of exploration and support of discovery — those theaters benefit as much as their patrons. Those houses create longstanding loyalty and thrive when others fall. 

It will be a sad day if local movie houses no longer exist and our only viewing experiences live on our devices. Without a theater, what will my generation lament decades from now? I choose to believe in the concept of theater exhibition. On a belief that going to the movies is good for the human spirit. I still believe movies bring people together, if nothing else than to express one’s personal feelings about them, and more importantly serve as cultural touchstones. If you don’t believe me, just ask Bong Joon-ho and the film students who will screen “Parasite” decades from now. Or maybe even a Raj Tawney film – but only if I stop procrastinating and finish this damn screenplay.

Raj Tawney an American essayist, journalist and poet. He writes about show business history and culture. Recent contributions include Variety, New York Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine. You can visit his work at rajtawney.com.