When my flight back to Shanghai was cancelled, a part of me secretly rejoiced in the fact that I’d be able to stay back in the West Coast and waste my days away with my dog, Mei. Yet being as unyielding as they are, my parents booked another flight within a few days, and next thing I knew, I was locked in a hotel with a cheap plastic thermometer, a case of bottled water, and two weeks to spend.
I spent those fourteen days essentially staring at my computer screen. I watched an unhealthy amount of T.V. shows and a variety of movies. Blockbusters, Pixar films, Christmas specials. Whatever piqued my interest next, I’d play on my computer, pillows stacked high behind my head, curtains tightly drawn to emulate—to the best of my ability—the darkness of a theater experience.
Since the pandemic began, one of the industries that has suffered the hardest blow is the world of movies: according to Statista, the global film industry has lost seven billion U.S. dollars in the last nine months or so. Hollywood, without sets and without theaters, lost not only its ability to film but also its most crucial ability to make money.
Movie theaters shutting down left and right—in some cases, permanently—marked an even further shift from theatrical releases to streaming services. Warner Bros announced this transition to the world when it decided all 17 of its movies for 2021 would release on HBO Max the day they became available in theatres. This list of 17 includes massive blockbusters like “Wonder Woman 1984,” “The Matrix 4,” and more. Netflix also recently premiered a trailer for their 2021 slate; this year, they will release a new movie every single week. Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot, Dwayne Johnson, and an endless collection of other big names are either directing or acting. In the United States, there will be no major theatrical releases for at least a healthy chunk of the year, but hey—all the films you will ever want to see will be a click away, gleaming on your computer screen.
Upon returning to China, where the pandemic is mostly under control, I realized I had entirely forgotten what life was like without a deadly pandemic looming over my head. I had forgotten I used to eat in restaurants with others sitting one foot from me. I had forgotten I could sample ice-cream flavors when in stores. I had forgotten movie theatres were a thing.
They’re a wonderful thing, really.
Since arriving in China, I’ve watched three movies in theaters, and there is something magical about sitting in a tiny chair, watching a story fly by on a screen many dozens of times bigger than me. The sounds of soft whispers, unrestrained laughter, and breath-held silence—even the occasional screeching baby. Theatres are truly a mesmerizing experience that, hard as I may try, I cannot create by shutting the curtains or playing a movie on a T.V.
I had completely forgotten the two hours or so of a movie could be such an immersive time. I’m not texting someone my reactions; I’m not screenshotting funny moments. I’m not simultaneously doing anything—I’m just watching a movie.
Though I doubt I’ll be entering any theaters when I return to California, I won’t easily forget the fun of going to movies again. Watching movies in the theater is enjoyable because it takes more effort than scrolling through a home screen and clicking on the first thing I see. Theater experiences take more concentration, time, and, in many cases, the fun of it is in the hands of everyone else watching along. Yet it is precisely these same factors that make them worth all the trouble.
If you’re somewhere safe, take this as your cue to go experience a movie in theaters. If you’re not, when you can once again visit a cinema, do so. Yes, drag yourself to a theater and buy a ticket. Walk into some big black room, set a drink down in the cup holder to your right, sit back, and relax—watch a movie.