R.I.P. Cinema – Leaving the Theatrical Experience to Nostalgia

I love movies. Let me start with that lest I sound too negative right off the bat. I’ve been obsessed with movies most of my life and have many fond memories of watching countless films on the big screen. All the time I spent in darkened movie theaters over the years played a critical role in my development into the person I am today. At this point, however, I think I’m comfortable relegating the much-celebrated theatrical experience to the realms of memory and nostalgia. I’m not sure when, or if, I’ll go to a movie theater again.

I didn’t see a single movie in the theater last year, nor the two before that. The last film I recall leaving the house to watch on a cinema screen was Knives Out in late 2019. I don’t think I missed much.

Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic greatly disrupted the entire movie industry and kept the majority of potential viewers cowering in our homes through most of 2020 into 2021. Major studios either postponed their movie slates or redirected them to debut on streaming instead. Of the few titles that followed through with theatrical releases, most made very little money.

The world has opened back up since then, and movies are playing in theaters again. The Avatar sequel just passed its first $1 billion in box office revenue as I write this, the third title from 2022 to hit that milestone. But this is still hardly business as usual. The way things are going right now, mega-budget franchise sequels like Avatar: The Way of Water are pretty much the only things making any money theatrically. The market for regular dramas and comedies (much less small art films) has almost completely dried up. Even Steven Spielberg’s latest piece of Oscar bait is a certified flop.

Cinema Paradiso (1988) - Titanus/Arrow Films
Cinema Paradiso (1988) – Titanus/Arrow Films

The audiences that might have gone out to see those type of movies in the past would just as soon wait 90 days for them to turn up on Netflix, HBO Max, or the like. I can’t blame them. I’m definitely part of the problem. I don’t even have any plans to go see the new Avatar. I can wait for its inevitable 4K Ultra HD disc release, even if that means losing out on 3D or High Frame Rate projection. I’m fine with that. In fact, I prefer it.

The pandemic is not over, as much as some people would like to pretend otherwise. Going out into public today, it’s a damn rarity to see anyone wear a mask anymore. Yet COVID is still very much out there, continually twisting into new variants that keep infection rates high. Yes, thankfully, vaccines mean that most people who catch COVID now will survive it and probably won’t need to be hospitalized. Speaking as someone who just went through a bout of it a couple months ago, let me assure you that it still absolutely sucks. I don’t want to go through that again if I can avoid it.

That’s not the only thing keeping me out of theaters, though. Honestly, my theatrical attendance had been dwindling for years even before the pandemic started. I’ve got other things to do, and young kids keeping me busy. Seeing movies in a theater isn’t a priority for me at this stage of my life. That’s a natural consequence of getting older, I think.

I must recognize that this attitude is somewhat self-serving. I write a home theater blog, after all. I have the luxury of watching movies in high-quality 4K digital projection on a large screen with Dolby Atmos surround sound right in my own basement, where I can sit comfortably and never deal with the hassles of inflated concession prices, cramped seating, or obnoxious viewers talking through the whole feature. I’m not exactly forced to watch the latest sci-fi blockbuster on a 30″ TV in my bedroom. This puts me well ahead of most people. I get that I’m in something of a rarefied position in that respect.

Even so, theaters are clearly struggling. Even viewers less fortunate than I am have lost interest in going to the movies. Hollywood’s efforts to lure them back with bigger and flashier spectacles like Avatar, reliant on gimmicks like 3D or HFR that are more difficult to get in the home, will only take the industry so far. People will get tired of that again, as they have in the past. Without a greater breadth of content that can appeal to other demographics beyond teenagers and young adults, the theatrical market will continue to contract, and many cinema chains will go out of business, leaving only the specialty venues like IMAX to host a decreasing number of big event movies, while everything else heads to streaming.

True Romance (1992) - Morgan Creek Productions/Warner Bros.
True Romance (1992) – Morgan Creek Productions/Warner Bros.

I’m saddened by this, of course. I used to love going out to the movies. I practically lived in movie theaters for a large chunk of the 1990s. When I went off to college, I made a point to see just about everything of interest – the good, the bad, and anything in between – in a cinema. In those days, I’d commonly squeeze in two (sometimes even three) movies a day, often at different theaters. Whenever I could fit it into my schedule, I’d run over to the small art theater on campus to catch the latest buzzworthy indie between classes. I saw hundreds of films theatrically in those days, not just new releases but also older classics screening at the local repertory cinemas. Although I couldn’t keep up that pace after I graduated and took up a full-time job, going out to the theater remained at least a weekly activity for many years afterward.

Over time, I got into the home theater hobby and invested in larger TVs, projectors, DVD and Blu-ray players, and surround sound. Even then, seeing a new movie in the theater was still a priority whenever possible. I fully bought into the belief system that watching a movie in the cinema with an appreciative audience was a special experience that could never be duplicated at home.

I’m just not feeling that anymore.

Perhaps I’m just getting crankier and turning into a curmudgeon as I grow older. That’s certainly possible. I won’t deny it. I feel like I’ve already had all the great theatrical experiences I need. I’m losing interest in the types of new movies being released today, and even those I might want to watch feel less and less worthy of leaving the house for. That’s all on me.

But it’s not just me. Movie theaters are dying. Younger viewers today don’t feel that same attachment to the so-called magic of cinema that prior generations (including mine) had. They’re contented to watch movies at home or on mobile devices. The options we have to consume content today are far wider than in the past, and many of them are satisfying in their own (if different) ways. Increasingly, many people consider sacrificing the huge screen and communal experience in exchange for greater comfort and convenience a fair trade. They’re not wrong to feel that way.

Cape Fear (1991) - Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures
Cape Fear (1991) – Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures

I regret to say that my own kids don’t share my passion for movies. In fact, they’ve only been to the theater a small handful of times, far fewer than I had by their age. Dragging them out of the house to go watch a movie somewhere else is an ordeal. They’d rather do it in the living room. Even convincing them to come down to my home theater room is a hassle. The idea of watching a movie in the dark has little appeal to them. As much as part of me wants to make them understand the proper way to watch a movie, I also realize that I can’t force my children to care about the same things I do. They need to find and follow their own interests. If that means they never love movies as much as I do, so be it. (Now watch, one of my boys will grow up to be the next James Cameron and I’ll have to eat my words, but that seems unlikely at the moment.)

I’ll say again that I truly love watching movies, and I always will. I have very strong nostalgia for the countless hours I spent in movie theaters in the past. I’ll never regret one minute of that time. All the same, I have no particular desire to go back to a theater anytime soon. I can’t even think of any future film (either planned or imagined) that would make me change my mind about that.

I’m not drawing a line in the sand or anything. Maybe I will head back to the theater one day, perhaps even sooner than later. However, I suspect that doing so will be more for someone else’s benefit (my kids, or wife, or friends) than my own. As far as I’m concerned, the theatrical experience is a lovely memory that should remain exactly that – the stuff of memory. I’m happy to let my home theater take over from here.

[Note: The header image above this post is from Barton Fink (1991), property of Circle Films/20th Century Fox.]

20 thoughts on “R.I.P. Cinema – Leaving the Theatrical Experience to Nostalgia

  1. Wow. Beautiful write-up, but quite the painful one. I still love the theatrical experience. But I never saw hundreds of them in one year, like you. Once per month has always been more or less my operandus. I saw 14 movies in the cinema in 2022.


  2. I loved (and hated) reading this. It’s obviously a touching and poignant write up, but it’s also quite sobering. I find it interesting that there’s no mention of the 1.5 billion grossing Top Gun: Maverick. That film is nothing like the others you mention. It is filmmaking for the sake of filmmaking. No “wokeness”, no political subtext, not trying to appeal to kids or sell toys; just a straight forward, outstanding action film. I’m actually saddened by the fact that you didn’t make it a priority to see it in the cinema. It was the best theatrical experience in probably a decade. I completely understand your feelings about not frequenting (or even going at all) the cinema anymore. However, when there is an event like Top Gun: Maverick — one that defies all of your thoughts on the state of the industry — you should be certain to be a part of it. An 8’ screen simply doesn’t do it justice.


    1. I did mention in the article that three movies from 2022 had passed $1 billion in box office. I watched Top Gun: Maverick on 4K UHD at home and enjoyed it greatly, the same as I have many hundreds of other big action movies filled with tons of stunts and spectacle I own on home video. Was this one really more special and worthy than any or all of those? In my opinion… Nah.

      Regardless, even if you think it was, that still goes to my point that the theatrical market is shrinking and soon those big event movies like Maverick and Avatar will be the only things that still play in theaters, while everything else goes right to streaming.

      I’m curious how you feel about one of 2022’s other biggest earners, Minions: Rise of Gru. Was that really a movie that demanded to be seen in a cinema?

      I’ll let your comment about “wokeness” slide, as I know you’re just trying to get a rise out of me. (Funny you didn’t notice that the movie made a point of having a girl pilot who was better and tougher than most of the boys.) As for political subtext, Maverick was hilariously stripped of politics, to the point that the script refused to identify “The Enemy” for fear of offending the Chinese or Russian markets. I don’t think that’s something to commend, personally.


      1. I think you misunderstood me discussing you missing TG: Maverick in the cinema as implying you should see all of the top grossing films that same way. I wouldn’t care if TG: Maverick made 1.5K or 1.5B; it was still an experience that shouldn’t be missed. Avoid 99% of all films, theatrically, but don’t miss certain EXPERIENCES. Like I said before, TG: Maverick requires more than 8’. It’s that simple.

        I wasn’t trying to get a rise out of you with my “wokeness” comment. I don’t think Phoenix was any tougher or better than her male colleagues. She was just comparable/equal.

        Stripping a film of politics to the point that you mentioned is certainly commendable to me, at this point. There is way too much political divisiveness in society. Cinema doesn’t need to add to the problem.


      2. I’ve already had plenty of those experiences. As much as I enjoyed it, I don’t think Maverick was really any better as spectacle than a lot of other movies I’ve seen. Frankly, it’s a bit overrated in that regard.

        I didn’t expect or want Maverick to be a political movie, but they could’ve at least made up a fake country name or something. Leaving the “Enemy” as completely nondescript stood out as a painfully obvious ploy to appease China and its allies. Which, ironically, is a very political move itself.


  3. You don’t think it’s any better as spectacle than a lot of other movies you’ve seen BECAUSE you didn’t see it the way that it was intended to be seen. That’s the point.

    You think it’s overrated in that regard SPECIFICALLY because you didn’t ever get to experience it the way that you needed to, in order to feel the full effect of its spectacle. This is why you need to continue to see films like this in the cinema.

    You’re probably right about the politics.


    1. I’ve seen many hundreds (if not thousands) of movies in the theater over the years. I know what that experience is and what it brings. It would not change my opinion of any movie one bit.

      Frankly, if a movie like Top Gun needed to be seen in IMAX to work, that would be something of a failure for the movie itself.


      1. In all seriousness, you’re actually making a statement that there’s not a single film that you’ve ever seen, that you would regret not seeing in the cinema? C’mon! I don’t buy that. How about Dune? You think you would have always felt the exact same way about it, if you would have never seen it in the cinema.


      2. That’s a fair question, but honestly, at this point, no. As I said, I’ve had many great experiences watching movies in theaters. I don’t regret any of them. But as far as needing more, right now, I don’t think so. I can’t think of any favorite movie of mine that I would run out to see if it got a theatrical re-release tomorrow (and by that I mean a proper quality release, not some crappy Fathom Events thing satellite-streamed from a DVD). Nor are there any upcoming movies I couldn’t just wait to catch later in my home theater.

        I’m just not feeling that love for movie theaters anymore. As much as that used to be such a big part of my life, I’m content to leave it in the past.

        Would certain big event movies like Maverick possibly feel more impactful on an oversized IMAX screen with deafening sound? Possibly. However, the current state of Blu-ray and 4K UHD hits a sweet spot combining both high quality presentation and superior convenience that’s more important to me right now. Going out to the theater is a very expensive hassle these days, not to mention a health risk. I don’t need it anymore.


      3. Wow! Not a single movie you’ve ever seen, huh? I’m pretty surprised by that. I would think that there would be at least a few that you would really regret having never seen them in the cinema. You’re saying that you would give up every single one of those trips to the theatre, and that no movie you’ve ever seen needed to be seen on the silver screen.

        You’ve got me wondering how many people out there feel the same way.


      4. That’s pretty clearly not at all what I said. I said that I already had all the great theatrical experiences I needed in the past. Going forward, I don’t feel that I need any more, or that I’m missing anything.


      5. Ahh… but that was never the question, now, was it? Why have you continued to dodge the question? You doing so resulted in me deciding that that must be what you meant. So, I ask again (and since you have now made it clear that there are films you would regret having never seen theatrically, I ask in a different way), which films would you regret having never seen in the cinema?


  4. I agree on all points. I have a nice system at home, would like to avoid covid, the flu, or catching a cold. I also like to pause the movie and finish it the next day. Avatar TWOW and TG Maverick are event movies and are designed to get butts in seats, but I’ve moved on. Nowadays I prefer to screen a film in the comfort of my living room, and ruminate on why the audio mix for this $200M product is so bad. Or, once in a while, so perfect. I’m a film guy and watch very little series stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m sort of in the same boat. I’ve not written off going to the movies ever again theatrically, but nothing has lured me there in a while. I also spent my teens and twenties taking in almost every release at the cinema. I did see The Batman in March of 2022, and it was awesome, but I love my little movie room and the conveniences of watching at home more. I’m not really afraid of germs or COVID, although I certainly am more aware of my surroundings because of it.
    Honestly, I’m more scared of getting gunned down in a movie theater than catching COVID (again). Mass shootings over the years have slowly made their way into my subconscious and that feels more likely to happen in some crowded spot. Ever since the events of 2012 and The Dark Knight Rises, I remember being very much more alert of what people around me do inside the theater.
    I think the bottom line is that I like convenience of at home viewing more and like to use my Home theater gear.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Im with you Josh. The last movie I saw in the theatre was Halloween Ends and I found myself so irritated by the overpriced tickets/concession items, other people coming in late, countless ads before the movie etc that I’ve basically sworn off going to the movies. The only things Ill go watch are giant action movies Like Bond, Mission Impossible or the new John Wick. Beyond that, I’ll just watch everything else on my 65” 4k TV.


  7. I can see what Josh means, but it’s more about the people in the theater for me.
    During the finale of Maverick, we had a group of old people in front of us start talking; one old lady was narrating what was happening on screen. Even my wife told her to shut up…

    It’s the rude, ignorant people killing the frequency of my theater attendance…that, and the quality of the movies being shown. To me, Marvel movies are boring (and in most cases, poorly written), and if Avatar is exemplary of the new “must see experience”, I’ll be staying home.

    There are a few movies I’d like to see on the big screen just for kicks because I wasn’t old enough to when they came out (Aliens, Predator, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard), but I don’t NEED to.

    With the right field of view and capable surround sound, the only differences are the lack of the big auditorium and the clueless people.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s