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Graham: When movie theaters return, will audiences follow?

The pandemic has hurt the ritual of theatergoing, and audiences may be getting used to not going to the movies

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

I love going to the movies but I'm getting awfully used to not going to the movies, which is another curve ball I wasn't expecting 2020 to throw my way.

Since high school, I've seen more than 100 movies a year, every year, in the theater. In recent years, that number has swelled to 150-200. However you slice it, for the last quarter century, I've been going to the movies an average of two to three times a week. 

The AMC Star Southfield 20 movie theater is closed due to the coronavirus outbreak and will not reopen. A notice of the permanent closure is posted on the front door.

Add it up, and it's a lot of movies. Let's see, carry the one, let's call it 4,000 movies on the big screen, give or take, and now you know why my answer is a hard "no!" when people ask me if I get popcorn every time.

I haven't seen a movie in the theater since March — the last movie I saw on the big screen was the Vin Diesel action flick "Bloodshot" — and by a long shot, this is the longest stretch of my adult life I've gone without going to the movies, and I don't know when I'll be going back. 

And weirdly, I'm OK with that. 

I'm still seeing movies, of course, and if going to the movies was the only way to watch movies, I'd be freaking out missing movies. But I'm still watching three or four movies a week, every week — job perk, what can I say — it's just I'm watching them on small screens (my laptop, my TV) rather than at the theater.

There have been a few movies I've seen during this pandemic that would have greatly benefited from the big screen treatment. "Greyhound," the Tom Hanks-starring WWII Navy picture, would have looked quite handsome on the big screen, same with "The Outpost," the recent Afghan war movie starring Orlando Bloom and Caleb Landry Jones.

As for everything else? The at-home experience was just fine. That goes for Judd Apatow's "The King of Staten Island," which was originally pegged for a theatrical release but wound up debuting on VOD platforms, as well as the Andy Samberg "Groundhog Day"-like comedy "Palm Springs." The action extravaganza "Extraction," meanwhile, which stars Chris Hemsworth in full-"John Wick" mode, was a Netflix production and was never headed to theaters anyway, despite the fact that it seemed custom made for a big screen bang. 

Netflix has been working to shift eyeballs from the movie theaters to home theaters for several years; sure, some opted to see Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman" in theaters but the majority of eyeballs watched it at home. And even with the dominance of Marvel movies over the last decade-plus, movie attendance has been down in recent years, sliding from 1.5 billion tickets sold in 2002 to 1.2 billion tickets sold in 2019.

There are advantages to watching a movie at home: the movie starts when you want it to; you can hit pause, go to the bathroom, go make a sandwich and come back. If the movie's a bust, you can turn it off without feeling the guilt of walking out of a theater. At home, you're in control. 

The trade off is concentration; it's much easier to fiddle with your phone at home than it is at the theater, where pulling out your device rightly earns you scolding from your fellow theatergoers. 

One of the many challenges theaters face once they reopen is convincing audiences it's safe to go back to the movies. Beyond that, it will be convincing audiences they need to go to the movies, which is harder to do as people are getting used to watching first-run movies at home. 

The Big Dog movies keep backing up their release dates, to the point where it's become comical. "Tenet," Christopher Nolan's latest, has been playing musical chairs with release dates, and is now taking a "don't call us, we'll call you" approach to announcing its next move. Disney's "Mulan," originally due out in March, and then this month, and then next month, has been taken off of the release calendar altogether, and the "Top Gun" sequel which was due out this summer and then moved to December has been bumped back to next summer. It was also announced this week that the new "Star Wars" and "Avatar" films have both been bounced back a full year. 

The point is no one's going to the movies anytime soon, which is devastating for theater owners, as well as for the tradition of going to the movies. 

When theaters do eventually reopen, the popcorn will no doubt smell better than ever, the frozen Coke will be colder than you remember and the Dots will taste like they've been picked fresh from the local Dots farm. And the big screen blockbusters will look crisp and sound stellar.

Die hards will flock back, as will those who miss the experience. But will average theatergoers, who have already been going to theaters less and less in recent years, return? And if they do, will they make a habit out of going to the movies?

For theaters, getting their doors open again is only step one in a long road back, and no one is quite sure how this movie is going to end.