For people in the business of reviewing films, movie theaters aren’t just a sacred place to watch the latest indie flick or big-budget blockbuster. Cinemas are a second home of sorts, or at least an office away from the office.
In pre-pandemic times, Justin Chang, a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR’s “Fresh Air,” would go to the movies for work at least twice on a slow week. Around festival season, when the volume of movie releases picks up considerably, he could catch as many as five screenings in the span of a few days.
Chang, like the majority of those who evaluate films professionally, hasn’t stepped foot in theater since last March and doesn’t know when he’ll go back. (When he does, he plans to wear a mask.) He has continued to review movies from his home, where distractions inevitably abound but don’t expose him to the risk of contracting COVID-19.
“I’m thinking of easing back into it on a case-by-case basis,” says Chang, who adds he’s fully vaccinated. “I’m not interested in seeing anything in a packed theater. I feel more comfortable going to a press screening because I imagine responsible professionals in our field are getting vaccinated and studios are [taking safety precautions].”
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After a weird 14 months for the film industry, Hollywood studios are attempting to navigate the eventual return of press screenings and splashy movie premieres. There has been a slow trickle of traditional red carpets to ring in new TV shows, but movie debuts have been limited to drive-in events. Other major industry happenings, such as the Tribeca, Cannes, Berlin and Venice film festivals, are planning in-person activities, although in the case of Tribeca, many offerings will also be held virtually.
The reemergence of public gatherings of any size, scope and scale have been guided by the individual city or county’s government-mandated restrictions. In many cases, studios have been arranging private viewings to get members of the media acclimated to revisiting theaters and have continued to offer digital links to anyone still hesitant. The cost of renting out a theater or a venue for a pre-release screening is negligible to a major studio, which spends $100 million promoting blockbuster hopefuls, though it can be costly for independents.
It’s a worthy value for studios big and small, not just to show confidence in its upcoming movie, but also to generate media coverage. For better or worse, these gatherings can be a powerful marketing tool for word-of-mouth and social media chatter. “What a studio does in terms of a press effort mounted behind a movie speaks to their investment in the film and how widely they want an audience to see it,” Chang says.
Virtual premieres and drive-in events have been convenient and cost efficient, but there’s a level of computer screen fatigue that inevitably comes with spending more than a year indoors. Studio insiders have indicated it will be a while before the return of full-fledged premieres, the kind that cost upwards of $500,000 to block off traffic around Hollywood and Highland in Los Angeles or rent out Lincoln Center in New York City. With capacity restrictions and the fact that talent isn’t willing to travel to pose on a red carpet, it’s not worth the outrageous expenses.
There are several would-be blockbusters on the horizon — Universal’s “Fast and Furious” sequel “F9,” Disney and Marvel’s superhero adventure “Black Widow” and Paramount’s eerie follow-up to “A Quiet Place” — that would traditionally merit swanky premieres. Yet all that’s currently on calendars is press screenings to a smattering of titles, including the Warner Bros. musical “In the Heights,” which is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in June, as well as Disney’s “Cruella.”
For “F9,” which is opening in June, Universal has considered hosting an event on Hollywood Boulevard or in outdoor venues like So-Fi Stadium or Dodger Stadium, where people don’t have to be in a car as they would in a drive-in, but nothing has been officially set. Any gatherings, at least for the time being, will be scaled-down affairs with fewer photographers and select attendees. Assessing the comfort level of movie stars and other guests, as well as enforcing mask mandates and physical distancing, will be of paramount importance.
Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair’s chief critic, isn’t quite ready to return to overstuffed auditoriums. Since he’s vaccinated, though, he has eased up on the idea of socially distant watch parties and recently went to a New York City screening room to watch and review the Guy Ritchie-directed revenge thriller “Wrath of Man.”
“If everyone is wearing their masks and nobody is talking, it feels low risk,” says Lawson. “I’ve been eager to come back. It makes a huge difference in the viewing experience. I wasn’t itching to look at my phone.”
Indeed, while working from home has been a boon for many, it could, at times, prove to be a unique test of restraint. And then there are the peculiarities that you wouldn’t know unless you’ve been sent a digital screener link that is essentially one authentication factor short of giving up naming rights to your first born child.
“I’ve seen a movie with my name printed across the screen in size 48 font,” says Katie Walsh, an L.A.-based freelance film critic. “I totally understand the need for security, but it’s not the ideal way to see or review a movie.”
There’s also the technical benefits. Walsh recalls nearly falling out of her chair during her first time at the cinema since the pandemic hit. “Experiencing that booming surround sound was the most palpable difference,” she says. “It was so much more immersive.”
Joey Magidson, who runs the blog Awards Radar, recently went to a mostly empty press screening of “Spiral,” a horror film in the “Saw” universe, at AMC Empire in Times Square. “Had it been a public screening on opening day for a big movie, I don’t know how likely I would be to have said yes,” he says. “Once I was settled in, it felt great. Nothing beats getting caught up in a movie on the big screen.”
Chang says when he does return to cinemas, he will continue to make an effort to see every movie that he reviews, whether it’s a documentary or the next James Bond sequel, on the silver screen. He notes that giving up the theatrical experience, for the time being, is hardly the sacrifice that many others have been forced to make during the pandemic.
“For TV critics, this is nothing new to them. They’re probably like, ‘Grow up, film critics,” Chang says with a laugh. “For those who it’s their day-in and day-out, we’ve missed that terribly.”
Jazz Tangcay contributed to this report.