Why We Keep the Movies Alive

In the age of streaming, it can be hard to remember how invigorating the theatrical experience is.

Photo Illustration by Matthew Billington / "The Best Years of Our Lives" Photograph by Goldwyn/RKO/Kobal/Shutterstock

Guest columnist Justin Wiese is the film programmer and curator at Torn Light Records.  

I’ve programmed a monthly film series at the Esquire Theatre since 2019 as a representative of Torn Light Records. We strive to curate iconic and interesting cult films and bring them to the Esquire cinema screen in a way that can bring attention to the intricacies and artfulness of cinema’s past, both highbrow and lowbrow. We’ve screened cult classics like Brazil, Repo Man, The Harder They Come, Polyester, City of the Living Dead, and Hard Boiled; we hope to expand the boundaries and scope of our screenings every month.

The highlight of our screenings, especially in the last year, has been the growing community that attends. Talking about actors, soundtracks, and directors in the lobby before the feature, afterwards spilling onto the sidewalk out front to discuss what was just viewed—that sense of community is the most important part of going to the movies. Gathering with people of all walks of life to experience a film together is one of the key aspects of appreciating it. It’s a tradition that has been around since the dawn of cinema. Seeing a film as it was meant to be shown, in a communal setting, on a nice big screen, will always be the best way to experience it.

The advent of home video in the early 1980s, rising ticket prices due to corporate theater chains, and most recently, the growth of massive studio-owned streaming services—which can bring hundreds of thousands of movies into the home with a few clicks of a remote—have all contributed to a decline in movie theater attendance. What the best feature films can convey in a big, loud theater is nowhere near the same experience as watching that film on a cell phone or a television. It’s not just the technical details that get lost, or even the texture or emotion of filmmaking. The biggest thing that’s missing when you’re watching movies this way is the most important: the sense of community.

Movie theaters, by design, are community havens. These spaces provide a way to emotionally connect with others through art, simultaneously sharing an experience that is unlike any other. You know yourself that comedies always seem funnier when there’s an enthusiastic crowd, hooting and hollering for every pratfall or gag. You’ve felt the tension ratchet up during a horror film or thriller, just waiting for that big jump scare or reveal. Sweeping fantasy epics, sports dramas, and explosive action films always feel best suited for the biggest screen and the loudest sound possible.

From the silent film houses of the 1920s to the blockbuster megaplexes of the 2000s, movie theaters continue to evolve with their audience. They have survived wars, censorship, recessions, and corporate interference. Supporting your local independently owned theaters, drive-ins, arthouses, and historic movie palaces allows the continued exhibition of films the way they were made to be seen. Movies always seem to work better in a theater.

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