Will Coastal Theaters Reopen in Time for Black Widow?

Plus: 'Nomadland' reviewed, and an old, black-and-white movie assigned.

The big question currently facing movie studios is the same question that has faced movie studios for the last eleven months: When can theaters reopen at something approximating a level needed to ensure that their big-budget spectaculars can, at the very least, break even?

The bad news is simple: no one knows for sure, and that uncertainty paralyzes every aspect of the film business, from marketing to production to distribution to exhibition.

The good news is more complicated, but very good. Between crashing case numbers and rapidly increasing vaccination rates, theaters in major metropolitan areas could very well be open by the time Black Widow is scheduled to hit theaters on May 7, according to an analysis by the Entertainment Strategy Guy.

You should really read the whole thing, as the kids say, but the basics are pretty simple:

After building a vaccine distribution model (with three scenarios), I’m confident that by early May, between 33%-44% of the population will be fully vaccinated, and up to 61% will have had a first dose. Given the initial data that even one dose provides nearly full efficacy, this level of vaccination will likely decrease deaths and hospitalizations by 76% or more.

It is much more uncertain what the volume of cases will look like by May 7th. The key metrics to focus on, for studios and other entertainment companies, will be the pace of vaccinations, the current caseloads, and the rate of death.

A problem with all of this is that the movie theaters are at the mercy of local and state governments, and local and state governments in New York and California—where the biggest movie markets are located—have been very hesitant to reopen theaters. This despite the fact that other indoor activities like gyms and dining and [checks notes] tattoo parlors have been allowed to open. This despite the fact that, as I noted in the Atlantic this week, theaters are about as safe an indoor activity as you can manage.

Between the actual activity in a movie theater (people all facing the same direction, distanced, with minimal talking) to the added precautions taken by theater owners (especially the implementation of superior air filters and increased ventilation) to the basic rules of life during a pandemic (wear your mask until you get your vaccine, people!), the risk of transmission is incredibly low and theaters should already be open, even under today’s conditions.

But don’t listen to me! Listen to this doctor:

“I don’t think theaters should be closed at this point,” Robert Lahita, a clinical professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and the chair of the department of medicine at St. Joseph’s Healthcare System, told me. “In fact, a month ago, I said they should have been open, especially if we’re taking kids to school and kids are before teachers in live learning. There’s no reason that theaters should be closed.”

With any luck, theaters will get the green light in Los Angeles and New York City soon. And if they do, the ball will be in Marvel’s court. Whether the Mouse House goes for the winner or lobs for time remains to be seen.

Do you have someone in your life who is losing hope about the movie theaters ever coming back? Forward them this email! They’ll appreciate. And, more importantly, I’ll appreciate it. And if you haven’t already, please consider signing up for Bulwark+ as a paying member; it’ll help keep this newsletter sustainable and ensure I can keep the heat on as I dig out of the frozen wastes of Dallas.

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Nomadland Review (theaters/Hulu)

Everyone who has ever complained about the film industry’s focus on the coasts, on the big cities, on the elites, about its refusal to tell stories about real Americans, about the heartland, about normal people struggling during tough times, better be lining up to watch Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland.

Nomadland follows Fern (Frances McDormand) after she decides to pack her life into a van and hit the highways. All of them. After the collapse of a plant owned and operated by United States Gypsum, she doesn’t have much choice. Not only is her job gone; her town is gone. Literally: In a title card at the film’s beginning, we learn that her zip code is being discontinued.

Fern picks up work here and there. As the film opens, she’s working part time at an Amazon warehouse during the Christmas rush. Later she works for a rock seller; a burger joint provides more cash later on. Disease has taken her husband and the Great Recession has taken her work, but she presses forward, trying to make her way through the world of nomads.

What’s most impressive about all of this is Zhao’s sense of empathy. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, life in an Amazon fulfillment center could’ve been raw material for mockery or, perhaps worse, pity. This is not the sort of job we’re used to seeing treated with dignity and respect, but Zhao shows Fern and her coworkers getting to know one another, having fun, making it through the day. When the seasonal work ends, there’s a quiet desperation to Fern’s insistence that she’s not ready to retire, that she wants to keep going. Not because she needs the money, though she does. But because she needs work. She wants something to do.

The wandering, in its own way, gives her that something. Learning how to live on the road—how to manage little things like bodily waste; how to fix what you can fix and get by with what you’ve got—is a full-time job on its own. And it gives her access to a new community, a group of fellow travelers who pick up work as they go, hitting up local festivals and the like when and where jobs are available.

Zhao uses this travel to show us the natural beauty of the American West, from the plains to the mountains to the sideshows. Terrence Malick would be impressed by her use of golden-hour lighting; this is very much a movie I would have rather seen in IMAX, where it’s playing now, rather than via a screener DVD on my home theater. Hopefully the snow in Texas will melt before it’s out of theaters.

There’s not much in the way of plot here; Nomadland calls to mind Antonioni’s sense of wandering ennui. This is about showing a slice of life, a way of living. Uprooted and restless, Fern and her newfound friends find meaning on the road.

And, honestly, that’s what keeps me from loving this film. I admire the performances; McDormand deserves all the praise she’s getting. I admire the look of it; Zhao knows how to shoot a Western landscape, as anyone who has seen her 2018 film The Rider can attest. Nomadland doesn’t leave me cold, as some slice-of-life pictures do; there’s genuine pathos and human feeling in her wanderlust and the stories she hears from fellow travelers. I guess I just found myself wishing for a bit more drama.

Assigned Viewing: The Night of the Hunter (Criterion Channel)

There was a rather dumb blowup on Twitter this week when a New York Times reporter and a director of middling talent both decided now would be a good time to share that they hate old movies in black and white. The director of middling talent doubled down by suggesting it wrong to give people grief about being unable to watch older films because, hey, those films are probably racist anyway.

You should spite them by watching something old and in black and white. Might I suggest The Night of the Hunter? It’s departing from the Criterion Channel at the end of this month, which gives you a little more than a week to check it out. And check it out you should! Written by acclaimed film critic and journalist James Agee and directed by actor Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter is one of the darkest movies I’ve ever seen.

Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a preacher and a murderer trying to get at a hidden fortune; to find it, he ingratiates himself into the lives Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) and her children, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) and John (Billy Chapin). Laughton gives the gothic plot an expressionistic visual panache; the film is all black shadows and sharp angles, an outward manifestation of the inward spikiness and ugliness of the story’s villain.

It’s a great movie and, despite being made before 1970 and being filmed in black and white, it holds up nicely. I strongly recommend checking it out.