SKIP TO THE FIFTH PARAGRAPH FOR MY THEATRICAL EXPERIENCE
I had my doubts if Christopher Nolan was the true authoritarian on demanding “Tenet’s” release. I know he has enormous power in Hollywood, but was he wielding it like a selfish dictator? A man of his intellect couldn’t be narrow-minded enough to refuse to delay his film until it’s safe to show in theaters, right? About 70 films have been pushed to the fall, next year, or placed on streaming. James Bond, Christopher Nolan’s childhood hero, was even forced back to a November release date. A November release date in which, like many, is viewed to be moved until things are safe. After seeing the promotional materials for the 10th anniversary 70mm print of “Inception,” there’s absolutely no doubt that Nolan is entirely hell-bent on releasing his film only in theaters. To see these promotional materials, I couldn’t access them online. At least not by any legal means. Much like his iMax previews to his last four films, it was mandatory to watch them in the cinema.
Attached were two reels. One was a 10-minute preview for “Tenet.” After that was a 2-3 minute look back on “Inception.” In both shows, Christopher Nolan makes it crystal clear that his films are intended to be seen on the biggest screen possible with the loudest speakers surrounding the audience. On the “Inception” reel, Nolan expressed his disappointment that there are those who couldn’t see his 2010 film in a theatre, so here was their chance to do so. The problem is from my understanding is that the 70mm print of “Inception” that I viewed is the only available one in the United States. I know that when they filmed the sizzle for these movies, Nolan couldn’t have predicted such a global catastrophe. I feel incredibly fortunate to have seen “Inception” on 70mm film when initially I saw it on a generic digital 35mm reprint in a theatre that wasn’t a lover of cinema like The Music Box Theatre in Chicago is.
But even before the Pandemic, how many people would get access to this print other than iMax cinemas? How long could iMax last? Most of the country has switched to digital. Celluloid has become a novelty that I will always prefer over digital, a uniqueness that appeals to a very niche audience. How would that be profitable in the long run? Now with the COVID-19 Pandemic, that novelty will probably die forever. It was probably going to die anyway, just not this fast.
To make a movie on film is far more costly than to use digital. Not only do you shoot the movie, but you must also send it to a lab to develop the print afterward. The chemical emulsion process is an expensive mechanism. Shooting on digital only requires a memory card or hard drive that you can directly dump the data onto another hard drive to start editing immediately on a computer. It’s cost and time efficiency towers over film. The theatrical distribution model is a dying breed, only left alive through purists like Mr. Nolan. His purity may be going a bit too far, however. It was only a matter of time before iMax would once more be something that was only used for nature and space films to be seen in a museum.
Walking into a theatre once more felt like going into a gallery. I can happily make it very clear that The Music Box Theatre is not taking this Pandemic lightly. Instructions weren’t given to me; they were borderline shouted.
-Theatre Attendant: Have you been here since we reopened?
-Me: Uh, I was here before.
-Theatre Attendant: NO! Have you been here on JULY 3rd SINCE WE REOPENED?
The attendant proceeded to provide me with the social distance seating protocol. He ended the briefing with “that’s it.” I almost expected him to say, “dismissed.” Usually, I would have been taken back by such an aggressive custom. Considering the unprecedented circumstances we all are in, I respected the young man’s sternness. I was picturing all the morons he had to deal with that didn’t follow proper instructions. People who ignored the blue “do not sit here” taped signs, took their masks off when not using a concession—pulling their phones out during the movie. Let alone, coughing or sneezing without their face cover. With 745 available seats, only 50 were free to use. People were spread exponentially more than 6 feet apart. In the row next to me, there were two young ladies. One of them was politely holding in her cough. Her mask was still on before the lights dimmed. During my state of alarm, I knew it was only a matter of time before one cough might slip out. Trying to mean no offense, I quietly sneaked towards the nearest row of the screen.
The woman’s coughing wasn’t the only reason I sat in the semi front row; I was also wearing glasses, whereas you may know, masks and glasses don’t make the best mix. If I was close enough to the screen, I can take my fogged up glasses off and still clearly see what was going on the screen. That mostly worked, but my natural eyesight couldn’t substitute for my assisted one. And boy did those glasses get foggy. I increasingly grew jealous of those that could tolerate contact lenses. Even worse were people with perfect vision. I had to limit my breathing during the film because every natural exhale felt like a steam pipe was being burst onto my eyes.
With me, I came equipped with two masks. The medical kind you see everyone wearing, and a cloth one. Both were on at the same time. In my pocket was a bottle of hand sanitizer for whenever I touched a surface. I heard that COVID doesn’t last on surfaces, but I’ve listened to the CDC change their minds before. My paranoia level varied. Once comfortably watching the film from a safe distance with my double-layered mask, I felt secure. The Music Box has been open for long enough since the Pandemic. I haven’t heard of any cases appearing within their establishment. They’re not like some local restaurants or bars I saw in Wisconsin during my vacation there who acted like everything was normal. With that said, you can’t control the actions of others.
Let me be clear that I never removed my mask once during the entire three hours I was in that theatre. While the movie played, I turned around to see if my fellow patrons were applying the same amount of caution that I was. In the beginning, everyone was covered up during the pre-roll “Tenet” adds. The rule in the theatre was that once seated, you can only remove your mask when eating or drinking, then immediately put it back on. This rule was announced by the man I spoke to earlier, where he took the stage before the film began. There was no way you could claim you were unaware of the safety guidelines. Of course, Americans had to act like Americans. Once the film started after the promos, everyone’s masks were off. At one point during the movie, that lady who I moved away from that was coughing, yup, one cough slipped out. Luckily I was about 50 feet away from her while looking like Shredder with my extra protection. Throughout the rest of the film, I didn’t hear a single cough or sneeze. How did the movie look on its correct format though? Spectacular.
Christoper Nolan may be a stubborn stick in the mud, but my God is he right when it comes to the beauty of the theatrical experience. The black levels in the colors are vibrant far beyond anything you’ll get on your 4K 60-inch television; the sound is bone shatteringly clear. Every nuanced detail in the phenomenal production design is visible to an otherwise naked eye; this is something special. “Inception” is a bombastic operatic picture in the very best sense of the meaning. My appreciation for the 2010 spy thriller was improved when seeing it on the big screen. Even with my fogged up glasses and short breaths, I felt like it was an experience worth having. To have that experience though you really, REALLY, have to love film. The common man would not go to the trouble I did to see a movie that they can easily watch at home.
Seeing “Inception” in a nearly abandoned theatre that still classifies as sold out was a bit of a relic. I felt like the little kid in “The Last Action Hero” walking into the old man’s theatre. I’m experiencing something from a great past time that no longer exists. It was like going to the Omnimax Theatre in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. Only this time, there was an inherent fear of disease, which luckily rapidly dissipated once there. I sympathize entirely with Christopher Nolan’s stone wall decision on maintaining a theatrical release for “Tenet.” He doesn’t have the power alone to release the film, whichever way he sees fit. Warner Bros is in the same boat as him. Nolan was the man who brought Batman back from the dead. He’s the one man in Hollywood who can sell an original big-budget picture on his name alone. Chris brought Warner Bros a lot of money.
The termination of the Paramount decree’s 72-year law is the final nail in our current chain’s coffin. Movies won’t be evenly distributed. All of our existing theatrical establishments are running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to make their money back to the point of offering 15 cents per movie ticket upon initial reopening. When theaters do come back, they’ll be rebuilt, owned by the studios that distribute them. You’ll have your Disney theatre attached to your Disney store. Watch “Spider-Man Homecoming 3” on the second floor, then buy your Spider-Man toy on the first floor. Go to your Netflix theatre so you can see a film four months before it hits streaming. Finally, go to a Warner Bros theatre in Six Flags Great America, where you can watch Matt Reeves’ “The Batman.” Then buy your Robert Pattinson caped crusader doll when exiting the show. The funeral is in procession for theaters as we know it. Christopher Nolan may be able to make movies on film throughout the rest of his career, but to see them on celluloid; you’ll have to go to a museum or a specialty theatre like The Music Box. Such a realization is a heartbreaking reality. The sooner we can accept it, the better off we’ll be.
More of my thoughts on the future of movie theaters can be seen below.