Of all the things in my life that have been altered or eliminated by the COVID-19 pandemic, going to a movie is one I probably miss the most. I haven’t been to a movie theater in 14 months, and with Yankton’s theater now closed for the foreseeable future, I don’t know when I’ll have that chance again.
That’s one reason why it felt so strange earlier this week when the Academy Award nominations were announced. I felt very out of touch, for much of what was nominated was completely foreign to me …
The film industry has been forced to undergo drastic changes during the past year, and streaming new movies to homes has become a necessary survival tool to deal with pandemic restrictions. You now don’t have to go to the movies because the movies can come to you.
So, while I haven’t “been to a movie,” in the traditional sense, since I saw “1917” in January 2020, I’ve seen a few new films since then.
In fact, the very first movie I ever streamed on my own (I’m terribly new to this entertainment technology, as well as the concept of ever having spare time to do this) was “Mank,” which has turned out to be a leader of the Oscar pack with 10 nominations. I was drawn to this story about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and the development of the script for the 1941 film “Citizen Kane.” (You may either love it or hate it — or quite possibly both — but everyone needs to see “Citizen Kane” at least once.) With “Mank,” the irony did not escape me that I was watching a black-and-white movie about a classic piece of film history via a new medium that may well make movie theaters obsolete.
I also streamed Pixar’s Oscar-nominated “Soul,” but that experience was different. I started watching it on Christmas Day but, besides enjoying the soundtrack, I initially found its life-and-afterlife storyline depressing, so I bailed on it. However, I came back to it a couple of days later and wound up finding it somewhat more uplifting. Clearly, walking out on a film in a theater only to come back a couple of hours — or days or weeks — later to finish up is not an option. But it was here, and it eventually paid off.
A few weeks ago, I started streaming “Nomadland,” which is another Oscar contender and has people raving about it. But after about a half-hour, I felt un-engaged and gave up. I’ll probably go back to it — or I may not. Circumstances now give me that choice.
After I abandoned “Nomadland,” I turned instead to Marvel’s “WandaVision” series, and I ended up watching every episode available (which, at that point, was all but the finale). This introduced me to yet another new cinematic experience.
“WandaVision” represents Marvel’s high-profile attempt to extend its Cinematic Universe (the almighty “MCU”) to another medium and was planned well before the pandemic arrived. The nine-part series picks up a storyline from the films, advances it to a different place in order to set up another MCU movie, which will probably be streamed as well as theatrically released. This may become a vital means by which movie franchises engage their audiences in what might be described as the post-movie era.
There are also some questions of access, for better and for worse, that can’t be overlooked.
First, I’m not sure a movie like “Mank” would have made it to Yankton in the pre-pandemic theater days, and I’m quite certain an indie film like “Nomadland,” despite having been filmed in part in South Dakota, would have missed us completely. Thus, the streaming age figures to give movie fans a lot more access to a wider variety of films, which could be great for both those fans and the industry.
Second, however, is the fact that this freedom all depends on where the films are streaming. Theaters let you pick and choose: You can go to any movie showing at whatever theater has the film, no strings attached. But with streaming, you need Netflix to catch “Mank,” or Hulu to watch “Nomadland,” or Disney+ to see “Soul” and/or the Marvel products. Without such services in your bundle, you have a problem. That’s where theaters own an edge over streaming.
Of course, theaters also give you the immersive experience of being there: in a crowd, in front of a large screen floating in the cozy darkness, amid that earth-shaking sound and music. There’s a holy magic in that, and I dearly miss it.
I don’t know what the movie industry will look like after the pandemic, but I doubt it will ever be precisely the same. I think streaming has emerged as a viable avenue, and some streaming services will tailor themselves specifically for that. And with so many theaters having been lost this past year, streaming will be essential.
On that note, I also don’t know if Yankton will ever have a theater of its own again. And I mourn that.
So, our collective movie experience may be changing for good. Unfortunately, it may no longer be a shared experience, but a remote communal link. But if it allows films to live on, then I grudgingly have to accept this new stream of movie consciousness.
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