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Coronavirus takes away the ideal movie experience: seeing it with a crowd

Everyone’s happiest cinematic memory involves sharing thrills with friends and strangers

A single patron watches a movie last week at a theater in Hungary, where the government has restricted ticket sales to 99 per show in an effort to curb the coronavirus.
Marton Monus/MTI via AP

What’s your favorite memory of going to the movies?

Maybe it was the summer of 1975, when you were a teenager, and “Jaws” was playing at the local theater, and you had enough in your pocket to cover the $2.10 ticket price.

You scored seats for the last screening of the night, at 10pm. By the time the movie started, the theater was jam-packed.

Opening minutes. We’re underwater, hearing the soon-to-be-famous opening theme, and then cut to teenagers partying on the beach.

Girl catches a guy’s eye, and vice versa. Guy stumbles after the girl, asking, “What’s your name again?” and she replies, “Chrissy!”

Moments later, Chrissy had taken her last swim, and the theater was rocking with screams and scary-movie laughter. You’ll never forget seeing that movie with your friends.

Or maybe your most treasured moviegoing memory is when a parent took you to see “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980, when you were JUST old enough to handle it. Or when you and your friends almost passed out laughing at Eddie Murphy’s antics in “Beverly Hills Cop” in 1984, or you took a date to “Titanic” in 1997, or you and your geek buds cheered “Iron Man” in 2008, or you took your little one to see “Frozen” in 2013 and spent nearly as much time watching her face light up as you did watching the movie …

Our favorite moviegoing memories are all about the shared experience. Even in this streaming age, I’m not sure even a world-class misanthrope would say his favorite movie-watching memory is that time he stayed in bed and ate Cheetos and watched “The Irishman” on his iPad without taking a single bathroom break.

So many genres — from comedies to horror films to superhero epics — are made for the communal viewing experience. Half the fun of the rollercoaster ride is hearing the laughs and screams of others.

Unless it’s a national emergency, and a movie-like pandemic is spreading at an alarming rate, and we’re being advised to isolate ourselves, to self-quarantine if necessary — or at the very least to practice “social distancing” and stay out of crowded venues.

AMC and Regal Cinemas in the U.S. and Cineplex in Canada announced they were cutting seating capacity in half at all locations, in an effort to create that social distancing.

On Saturday, we saw the first coronavirus-caused movie theater closings in the United States. By the next day, Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center had decided to go dark through April 10, and the mayors of New York and Los Angeles had ordered the temporary shutdown of all their cities’ cinemas.

Meanwhile, highly anticipated movies from “No Time to Die” to “Mulan” to “A Quiet Place, Part II” have been postponed.

John Krasinski directs his wife, Emily Blunt, during the making of “A Quiet Place, Part II.” He chose to delay the film’s release “till we CAN all see it together!”
Paramount Pictures

“Quiet Place II” writer-director John Krasinski issued a statement: “One of the things I’m most proud of is that people have said our movie is one you have to see … together. … [N]ow clearly is not the time to do that. … I’m gonna wait to release the film till we CAN all see it together! So here’s to our group movie date!”

Cheers to that.

• • •

I get questions like this all the time: “So how do you see all those movies? At home? Or is there a special theater? Do you see them with other people?”

Yes. Yes. Sometimes.

Many a daytime screening is held at the legendary Lake Street Screening Room, where Roger Ebert always sat in the back row on the far left and Gene Siskel was down the small aisle, on the right. Sometimes the room is packed with a couple dozen critics; occasionally it’s just a handful. Once in a while it’s just me.

I also receive links to watch some movies at home. Mid-range and smaller (in terms of budget) films; documentaries and indies; feature-length movies from the premium streaming services. There are times when I laugh out loud, or I’m jolted by a scare moment, or I choke up at a genuinely moving development — but a small part of me wishes that singular instant memory hadn’t occurred in my comfortable isolation tank.

For virtually every “event” film — superhero movies, action franchises, mainstream comedies, horror stories, Oscar-bait dramas, animated adventures — the studios hold advance screenings at commercial venues such as the AMC River East or the Showplace ICON or the ArcLight Cinemas. A couple of rows are reserved for members of the press, and the rest of the seats go to fans with passes, and I have nothing to do with that process so it’s fruitless to ask me for tickets to advance screenings because I don’t have any.

Most of the time, every seat in the house is taken. We all settle in for the shared experience of watching “Get Out” or “Crazy Rich Asians” or “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” or “Parasite” or “Knives Out” or “The Invisible Man” or…

Well. We’ve come very close to hitting the Pause button on that next great shared moviegoing experience.

I still have a few outside-of-home screenings on my Google Calendar. And I’ll still have plenty of material for the Sun-Times in the weeks to come, as I’ll continue my practice of reviewing streaming and cable TV series and writing the occasional column and weighing in on whatever theatrical releases aren’t delayed.

But we have to be smart and diligent. We should adhere to the experts’ advice on social distancing.

I’ll see you at the movies — eventually. Here’s hoping it’s sooner rather than later.

Be well.