It’s a recent storytelling trend, but the concept might be relevant to reality right now: sometimes, it can feel like we’re all living in alternate universes.
We are currently suffering from a starvation of shared rituals, but most people don’t know they’re hungry. It’s no surprise that our moment feels divided and difficult to reconcile; the freedom to choose our own narrative and stream of information brings about an increasingly isolated series of bubble-colonies in an infinite “multiverse” of experience and choice. The West has always been a culture built on the bedrock of individual choice, but an increasingly interconnected world has made the number of individual choices (and possible “universes”) practically limitless. Private schools, curated dating apps, church shopping, overtly one-sided news stations – they’ve all got “individual choice” in common, catering to our own pre-conceived worldviews and moral imaginations.
None of these options are sins, but collectively, they can destabilize reality. Many children no longer have an immediate community within walking distance, which pushes them further toward finding algorithmic connections online. Choosing a romantic partner now feels more overwhelming and loaded than ever, despite the limitless access to endless options via dating apps. The local parish church is mostly a thing of the past, which leads to geographically sprawling church communities (much like private schools) built more around shared preferences than shared day-to-day experience or companionship. And we don’t even need to elaborate on the destructive capabilities of our increasingly isolated news/information bubbles.
But what if I told you that movie theaters might play a part in beckoning us back to a better world?
The Death of a Theatergoing Culture
I grew up going to midnight movie premieres. Ya know, when a movie was releasing on a Friday and everyone would line up on Thursday night to see it at exactly 12:00am? Big movies still open on Thursdays today, but they usually have dozens of showtime options starting anywhere from 3 pm to 8 pm to 2 am. Growing up, though, I loved the ritual of midnight movies. Sometimes, my friends and I would take a nap around 7 pm, sleep until 11, and then head to the theater to line up down the block. Other times, we’d just stay up counting down the hours and minutes until the big event movie would be released. If it was something nerdy enough, people at the theater would often be wearing costumes and taking photos and coming ready to cheer and applaud together.
Looking back, the last few midnight premieres I went to—Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 2 was the last one, I think—feel almost like remnants of an era where nerdy fans would use internet forums primarily as a staging ground for real, in-person gatherings like book-launches, conventions, fan-musicals, and yes: movie premieres. Today, the relationship is flipped: conventions and fan gatherings still happen, but they feel almost like networking events to further a continued digital/social media existence.
That might be a tangent, but the point is this: with the increased options for showtimes – and even the ability to stream some new-release movies near the day they hit theaters – the ritual of midnight fan premieres has declined significantly. And on a bigger scale: movie theaters, in general, have seen a significant drop in attendance in the last few years, sometimes for understandable reasons. Ticket prices, babysitting, and the ease-of-access of streaming platforms have all led to an increased hesitancy to leave the house to experience a movie. Oh, and uh: that whole pandemic thing probably played a part, too. When people do go to theaters, it’s usually for what Martin Scorsese would call “theme park movies”—spectacle-centric blockbusters that feel like they demand a big screen to be experienced properly. Anything below that bar—from romantic comedies to Oscar dramas to A24 indies and mid-budget thrillers—tends to find its primary existence on streaming, in the comfort of the viewer’s home.
It’s hard to believe that mid-budget non-sequel films like Juno, Forrest Gump, The Sixth Sense, Saving Private Ryan, Twist, Home Alone, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Napoleon Dynamite, American Beauty, or Fahrenheit 9/11 were once massive box offices successes that drew millions of people out of their homes and out to theaters to just see them together. Half of those movies would flop today; the other half would go straight to Netflix or HBO Max, joining the hordes of “content” options that leave couples swiping through Netflix every night, debating what to watch until they give up and scroll through Twitter. In a world of infinite options on our TVs, the 10-or-so movies playing in a given cinema at a time almost feel a welcome refinement of the potential palette.
Even when it comes to watching things at home, the concept of watching a TV program at the same time as everyone else—like the nightly news at 11 or the latest episode of LOST or American Idol at 8 pm—feels almost alien in a landscape where we call the shots on what (and when) we want to binge. The shared ritual, the shared “universe” we once inhabited has been consumed by the limitless curation of our reality through ease of access. Theater marquees become the ever-growing “My List” on Netflix. Radio stations become Spotify playlists. Convenient things are gained, but foundational things are lost. In a world where everything is just another piece of content to consume at your own pace and leisure…ritual dies. Worship dies. Reverence for art dies. And reality fractures.
But movie theaters are still just as magical—indeed, just as transcendent—as they’ve ever been. Sure, there are rude guests every once in a while—though I’d argue that the recent prevalence of reserved seating has limited the capacity for spontaneous rowdiness. And sure, tickets are still expensive—though if you get AMC Stubs A-List, Regal Unlimited, or the newly-resurrected MoviePass, seeing one or two movies per month will make the subscription fee pay for itself. But I’m firmly and vehemently planting my feet in the camp that despite all of the hurdles, theatrical experiences are still far more than a novelty.
The Culture-Healing Power of The Cinema
I believe there are three things that make movie theaters miraculous, even today, and they might sound something like artistic reverence, submission, and worship, and shared reality through ritual.
Artistic reverence is easy to describe but increasingly hard to embody; the rise of streaming and at-home viewing has led to a rise in “armchair criticism” and “CinemaSinning” where we watch movies on our laptops and phones—or, God forbid, on our motion-smoothed TVs—pausing to grab snacks and go to the bathroom and check social media and pick out plot holes and Google “ending explained” videos without giving the artistic work a fair shot to be viewed reverently in the way that the artist intended it. Even Wanda Sykes joked about this when she co-hosted The Oscars in 2022, saying “I watched The Power of The Dog three times and I’m halfway through it.” The camera cuts to the film’s director, Jane Campion, chuckling at the jab, but I can only imagine that the suggestion that viewers have been too distracted to even finish your excellent movie must sting a little bit. We’re living in an increasingly cinematically-illiterate landscape, but everyone also thinks they’re much smarter than the artist who made whatever they’re watching.
I’d argue that the limitations placed on us during the theatrical experience are healthy, humanizing ones. It offers us the rare, sacred space to give our undivided attention to something that has no practical takeaways or functional utility, but an infinite amount of emotional significance.Houston Coley
In an era where the “Hollywood elite” are jabbed constantly, and probably for good reason, it might be heresy to suggest something slightly less cynical, but I will: I think we need to bring back respect for artists as the potential prophets of our era, and that means giving them our attention and concentration in a world where those things have become commodities that every corporation wants to steal. It doesn’t mean we have to like every movie, refuse to think critically about what we’re seeing, or trust the artist’s worldview blindly, but it does mean that we should behave as though what we’re watching is something made by a person (or rather, thousands of people) with vision and purpose and perhaps even prophetic spiritual meaning.
This leads us straight into submission and worship: the action of acknowledging something greater than ourselves and, if only for a brief two hours, submitting to where it will take us with awe and wonder. Filmmaker Jean Luc Godard famously summed up the difference between movie theaters and TV this way: “When you go to the cinema, you look up. When you watch television, you look down.” One conveys respect, the other conveys control.
Film critic Jim Emerson elaborates on Godard’s quote by saying:
“For a movie-lover, the theater is a sort of temple, and the experience touched with religiosity. You look up in hushed awe at the screen…and the darkness dispatches all distraction, leaving only the light and sound emanating from the screen. And then there’s the enveloping scale of the image…Most of all, you relinquish control over the movie by submitting to its (unbroken and continuous) terms, accepting its rules of temporality.”
One of the most powerful cinematic experiences of my life was watching Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life in theaters back at the end of 2019. I remember moments toward the ending thinking, “I can’t believe this is still going.” I remember wondering how long we had left. I remember squirming in my seat and longing to see an end to the suffering of a Christian martyr. The movie is lengthy and slow, but that discomfort is also part of immersing yourself in a story of a man stuck in prison for his faith. If I had watched A Hidden Life at home, I doubt I would have been able to get through it without checking my phone or pausing for a break. But the unyielding pace of the cinema screen meant that this story marched on in front of me, whether I liked it or not. And I was edified by the experience.
For modern audiences, the loss of individual control upon entering a movie theater is often a point of annoyance; movie theaters don’t have a pause button or a fast-forward option – and we don’t always control who sits next to us, either. But I’d argue that the limitations placed on us during the theatrical experience are healthy, humanizing ones. It offers us the rare, sacred space to give our undivided attention to something that has no practical takeaways or functional utility, but an infinite amount of emotional significance. For someone with ADHD like myself, this forced concentration is unbelievably helpful…but beyond that, the submission and ‘worship’ of a movie theater allow us to exercise the muscles in our soul that long to connect with something greater than ourselves. Snowballed throughout years of moviegoing, this experience breeds humility, curiosity, and childlike wonder.
And that brings us, finally, to shared reality through ritual.
Philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s recent book The Disappearance of Ritual delves deep into the ways that the fabric of society has been affected by the lack of sacred rhythms shared with one another. In a description that bears striking resemblance to the movie theater, he says “The Sabbath demands silence; the mouth must be closed. Silent listening unites a people and creates a community without communication . . . The divine commands silence . . . Today’s compulsion of communication means that we can close neither our eyes nor our mouths. It desecrates life.” He goes on to say, “Rituals are symbolic acts. They represent, and pass on, the values and orders on which a community is based. They bring forth a community without communication; today, however, communication without community prevails.”
While face-to-face community is sacred, another facet of existence may have been lost in the kerfuffle: side-by-side community..Houston Coley
The idea that movie theaters are a type of community might seem like a silly one at first; we don’t often get to know the strangers sitting around us, and they might seem like an annoyance impinging on our personal freedom to enjoy things with our individual preferences as priority. But even if the worst theatrical experiences—the ones you tell your friends about when you say you don’t want to go back to the theater—might be because of other people harming the moment, the best theatrical experiences are often because of other people elevating the moment. Watching a comedy at home alone just isn’t as funny as watching it for the first time in a crowded cinema with other strangers just as surprised by the punchlines as yourself. Even Martin Scorsese’s bemoaned “theme park movies” are titled as such because for better or worse; they demand a big screen and excite an audience…and the theater’s reaction when Captain America lifted Thor’s hammer in Avengers: Endgame is proof of it. Recently, Avatar: The Way of Water was the same way; Cameron’s 3D HFR vision was one that could not be properly experienced at home, like watching a Broadway show recorded instead of seeing it in person with others. But the necessity of the communal theatrical experience goes beyond riotous laughter and excitement or the football-stadium applause of superhero event cinema.
I still remember the first time I saw Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite in theaters, during the scene when a basement-dwelling character slowly peers his head above a staircase at midnight and makes eye contact with the audience. The collective chill that rushed through the theater was palpable and communal. And when the movie ended and everyone compulsively clapped, moved by the tragic ending and the journey we’d completed, it seemed like we were all a little closer and maybe the world wasn’t quite as divided as it was two hours before. Certainly, if I wanted to start a conversation with any of the people around me, I now had common ground to do so. That’s what shared movie experiences create.
Steven Spielberg discusses this ritualistic community much better than me:
“I’ve always devoted myself to our movie-going community — movie-going, as in leaving our homes to go to a theatre, and community, meaning a feeling of fellowship with others who have left their homes and are seated with us. In a movie theatre, you watch movies with the significant others in your life, but also in the company of strangers. That’s the magic we experience when we go out to see a movie or a play or a concert or a comedy act. We don’t know who all these people are sitting around us, but when the experience makes us laugh or cry or cheer or contemplate, and then when the lights come up and we leave our seats, the people with whom we head out into the real world don’t feel like complete strangers anymore. We’ve become a community, alike in heart and spirit, or at any rate alike in having shared for a couple of hours a powerful experience. That brief interval in a theatre doesn’t erase the many things that divide us: race or class or belief or gender or politics. But our country and our world feel less divided, less fractured, after a congregation of strangers have laughed, cried, jumped out their seats together, all at the same time. Art asks us to be aware of the particular and the universal, both at once. And that’s why, of all the things that have the potential to unite us, none is more powerful than the communal experience of the arts.”
We might be tempted to believe that community and connection are only present when we are looking another person in the eyes and engaging face-to-face. That’s certainly what we tried to emulate when we connected with friends and colleagues over Zoom calls during the pandemic. But while face-to-face community is sacred, another facet of existence may have been lost in the kerfuffle: side-by-side community. Side-by-side community gives us something to engage beyond ourselves, outside our control. It takes relationship and makes it about more than just the exchange of individual experience and already-held opinions. As we sit shoulder-to-shoulder with others beholding something greater together, we are given the gift of a shared reality. And suddenly, after so much disconnection, we’re inhabiting the same universe again.
Houston Coley and his wife Debora are missional documentary filmmakers currently living between Atlanta and Czech Republic. Houston is a YouTube video essayist, self-described 'theme park theologian', and the artistic director of a nonprofit called Art Within.