Fear is the theater killer

New polling suggests people are afraid to go back to theaters

When looking at the box office results for Tenet, here’s the only question that really matters: are numbers depressed because capacity is down or are numbers depressed because people are fearful and avoiding movie theaters?

There are stated preferences and revealed preferences. What are the stated preferences? Well, in a gif:

The stated preferences are much, much worse than the best-case revealed preferences, which I’ll get to in a moment. The stated preferences should scare movie-theater owners, movie distributors, and anyone interested in the future of exhibition. The stated preferences are, potentially, an extinction-level event.

According to new data from The Harris Poll drawn from a survey conducted September 3-5, 70 percent of polled American adults think that movie theaters are “more dangerous than other types of public gatherings.” Seventy-one percent said they would not feel safe in a movie theater right now.

Two-thirds of those polled said that social distancing and limiting auditorium capacity were key, and nearly half, 47 percent, said capacity should be below 25 percent in any given theater. Perhaps primed to realize that they’re talking about an extinction-level event, 58 percent of respondents said they’re worried about theaters not surviving the pandemic and 57 percent said they’ll miss theaters when they’re gone.

OK, so. That’s the bad news. The box office data offers us some limited insight into revealed preferences and it’s . . . slightly better, I guess?

On the one hand: a $20.2 million domestic opening for a $200 million film from arguably the biggest—possibly the only—brand-name director working today who can draw an audience is bad no matter how you slice it. In our modern mode of moviegoing, with frontloaded first weekends and shorter legs, $20 million is the sort of number that lands you in director jail.

On the other hand: We are not in normal times. We are in very abnormal times. We are in times that feature the largest moviegoing markets—New York City and Los Angeles—being closed entirely. Only 65 percent or so of the marketplace was open last weekend, when Tenet debuted.

Still: $20.2 million.

Hey: That’s the third-best opening for a Labor Day movie ever!

Right, but: Something tells me that neither Christopher Nolan nor Warner Bros. are happy to be opening behind [checks notes] The Possession and Halloween. The Rob Zombie one, not the good one.

Look: Rob Zombie has a lot of qualities to offer—

Sorry: didn’t mean to distract you from the $20.2 million opening.

Fine: I understand why you’re fixating on that number. But it’s not the only number! If you look at per-theater averages you could easily make the case that Tenet is performing on par with Interstellar and Dunkirk, his two most recent films, which, like Tenet, are not based on preexisting properties. Tenet grossed almost $7,200 per screen. That’s more than half of Interstellar’s opening weekend average ($13,341) and Dunkirk’s opening weekend average ($13,578). Given that the few theaters that are open are running at capacities that range between 30 and 50 percent, you could very easily argue that Tenet is over-performing.

Wow, so: $20.2 million is a big win then!

Well, uh … see, it’s …

Yeah. That’s what I thought.

I indulged my schizophrenia here to make a simple point: The revealed preference, honestly, is kind of hard to discern. You could construct a case that Tenet is doing well, all things considered. But even then it’s dicey and Warner Bros. is going to have to hope that people are spreading out their moviegoing beyond the first weekend in order to avoid crowds. Because the final tally, $20.2 million, is still disappointing.

But they better hope the revealed preferences are closer to the reality on the ground than the stated preferences. Because the stated preferences are terrifying.


Review: ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ (Netflix)

Like Christopher Nolan, Charlie Kaufman is obsessed with time and our perception of time. But where Nolan is literal-minded in his depiction of time, with his tesseracts and his men moving backwards, Kaufman’s touch feels more impressionistic. From the memory-hopping Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to the machinations of eternal-life-seeking body hoppers in Being John Malkovich to the lifelong play that comes to obsess the theater director at the city-hopping heart of Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman hops in and out of time, watches it stretch out and compress.

At one point in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the young woman played by Jessie Buckley says that she feels as if she’s stuck in one place while time swirls about her, a fixed point as her boyfriend Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) mother and father alternate between decrepit and spry. As the oddities pile up—her constantly changing name; his inability to remember what she does; her rapidly shifting moods depending on the mood of those around her—we start to realize that this young woman isn’t a young woman at all but a figment of Jake’s imagination, a sort of totem that gives his life meaning.

Kaufman is a master of cinematic misdirection, piling tricks up on top of each other to keep us just off kilter. Overlapping voiceovers and flashes of imagery that alter from cut to cut combine with his mastery of time to keep us as disoriented as the nameless—or, really, many-named—girl at the center of the proceedings. Your ability to enjoy or appreciate I’ve Been Thinking About Ending Things will be directly related to just how willing you are to roll with that intentional disorientation and obfuscation, to allow for a cinematic interpretation of the vagaries of memories real and imagined.

I’ve Been Thinking About Ending Things isn’t just about the meaning we derive from the relationships we have or that we wish we had; Kaufman uses this film as a way to ruminate out loud about all manner of controversies, from the annual contretemps over “Baby It’s Cold Outside” to a strange potshot at Robert Zemeckis. This film occasionally feels like an extended bit of literary or cinematic or general cultural criticism as well as criticism of criticism; an especially dull character asks at one point “How can a picture of a field be sad without a sad person looking sad in the field?”

If you need the sad person looking sad, holding your hand through the fractured narrative and surreal finale of I’ve Been Thinking About Ending Things, you’re probably going to leave the picture annoyed. I say this not to be snobbish—not everything is meant for everyone, and there’s no point in subjecting yourself to something as off-kilter as this if you’re not going to hop on its wavelength—merely as a warning. But if you can deal with a bit of weirdness and can truly focus on the movie, no mean feat for anything on Netflix when distractions abound as you watch either on an internet-enabled device or within easy reach of one, you may find it rewarding.


Assigned Viewing: ‘A Hidden Life’ (HBO Max)

A great film about the tragedy of totalitarianism. Not about the horrors of totalitarianism—Franz Jägerstätter’s journey does not take him to the concentration camps, though his refusal to accede to Hitler does cost him his life—but about the way it warps everything, demanding loyalty, turning neighbor against neighbor. The refusal to join someone who is obviously wicked leads to the belief from those who have joined that you find yourself to be superior, that you think of yourself as better. They judge themselves because they think you, the refusenik, are judging them. That judgment brings shame.

And they are right to feel that shame.