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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC's film experts reflect on 2020's impact on movies, venue industry


DTH Photo Illustration. Despite closed movie theaters across the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic, studios have still managed to release movies over streaming platforms.

There’s nothing quite like sitting in a dark movie theater with dozens of strangers as the smell of popcorn with faux-butter drizzled over it fills the air. A white light emanates from the projector in the back of the room and the film plays out with the crowd hanging on every word, every movement, every cut.

Like other mass gatherings, COVID-19 has taken the magic of a packed theater away. While some cinemas are open in North Carolina, a weak slate of blockbuster films and low attendance have made 2020 one of the most difficult and fascinating years in recent Hollywood history.

Rick Warner, director of the film studies program at UNC, said that the experience of seeing a film on the silver screen is like none other. 

“For me, as somebody who teaches film, I just really value the experience of getting to see a film on the big screen, bigger than life,” he said. “It's a constitutively different experience from watching it on a computer screen or a large TV screen in my home."

Despite the mysticism of watching a film on the silver screen, major studios have been working to adapt to the pandemic and are experimenting with sending blockbuster films to on-demand platforms at a high price point. Disney released its live-action remake of “Mulan” as a Premier Access title on Disney+ for $30 and Universal Pictures released “Trolls World Tour” at $19.99 on multiple platforms.

Others have sold their films to streaming platforms in an effort to recoup their investments. Paramount sold “The Trial of the Chicago 7” to Netflix and “Coming 2 America” to Amazon, with the retailer reportedly paying roughly $125 million for the film.

However, with the recent news that Warner Bros’ entire 2021 schedule will launch simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max (each film will stream for one month before becoming exclusive to theaters), worries about the future of theatrical distribution have been renewed.

“The very foundation of movie-watching has changed,” Danielle Christmas, an assistant professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, said. “I suspect it will never go back to how it was.”

Martin Johnson, an assistant professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature who teaches a course on moviegoing, is more optimistic that theatrical exhibition will continue after the pandemic.

“For the last 50 years, (theaters) had the weaker hand compared to the studios themselves,” Johnson said. “This seems like another weakening of their hand. I think we'll see fewer theaters in number, but that doesn't mean moviegoing altogether will go away.”

But, major cinema chains such as Regal and AMC are not the only businesses affected by theater closures and increases in streaming, Warner said.

“This is something that's affected us locally,” Warner said. “We have theaters in the Triangle — especially smaller theaters that specialize in independent films or foreign films — that are having a really hard time getting through this.”

The Carolina Theatre in Durham announced that they will close through June 2021 after laying off much of its staff. The Varsity Theatre in Chapel Hill announced a two-week closure in March via Facebook and since has not responded to multiple requests for comment from The Daily Tar Heel.  

Some local theaters are finding ways to get through the struggles of the pandemic. The Chelsea Theater has pivoted to offering virtual screenings, with a portion of rental sales going to support the theater. A new drive-in theater opened at Carraway Village, which hosted Film Fest 919 in October and now hosts commercial screenings.

With some of the year’s most highly-anticipated films moving to release dates in 2021, smaller films have been more in the spotlight than usual.

Johnson singled out “I'm Thinking of Ending Things,” directed by Charlie Kaufman.

“It was a perfect film to see at home, because you had the experience of this dread of being trapped in the house and not knowing what's going to happen,” Johnson said.

While Christmas enjoyed Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island,” she said she found herself returning to films that make her comfortable, but even doing that is difficult for her in 2020.

“I don’t feel like I can relax enough to just watch a movie and have a really good time, Christmas said. “Suspending my anxiety for two and a half hours sounds really lovely and impossible. That’s a fascinating and really distressing thing. That feels like a problem of modernity right now.”


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