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The Last Picture Show

As the screens we watch our movies on get smaller and smaller, we're losing a unique, communal experience.
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(Photo: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Norma Desmond was right: “It’s the pictures that got small.” First it was television, invented in the '20s, but in half of America’s homes by the '50s, and then the personal computer, which started with media drives and then added streaming capacities. The big screen kept getting smaller and smaller, and now many of us watch films on our laptops, tablets, and even mobile phones.

More than 43 million watched the Academy Awards last week, even though two-thirds of us didn’t see a single one of the nine films nominated for Best Picture. We’ve come a long way since 1946, when 57 percent of the population saw a movie every week. That year, 80 million Americans went to the talkies at least once every seven days. The highest peak in recent history was 2002, when almost 1.6 billion tickets were sold: about six tickets per person, or one film every eight or nine weeks. Ticket sales are still at all-time highs, but that’s because of higher prices, not growing audiences.

Why go to the movies at all when the tickets and the concessions are so pricey, your pajamas are so comfortable, and the archives of Amazon Instant, iTunes, Netflix, and Redbox are so expansive? There is, of course, the technological reality that most films are still made for theater release. “There’s nothing like the big screen,” said David Lynch, in an interview with Deborah Solomon. “The cinema is really built for the big screen and big sound, so that a person can go into another world and have an experience.”

Picture shows have always been about communal experience, whether it’s the anticipatory conversation with strangers in the line for tickets or the relief of complimentary air conditioning on a withering summer day.

Asked about watching his own films on small screens, Lynch said: “More and more people are seeing the films on computers—lousy sound, lousy picture—and they think they’ve seen the film, but they really haven’t.” For most of us, that is true: Our home technologies are poor substitutes for the sounds and sights the cinema offers.

But going to the movies has always been about more than technology: Picture shows have always been about communal experience, whether it’s the anticipatory conversation with strangers in the line for tickets or the relief of complimentary air conditioning on a withering summer day. Even when we go alone, the movies are a collective escape: something we do with others, something we experience together.

Just as we go looking for the lives of others on the screen, we get to look at them around us in the theater. In the age of bowling alone, when so many community organizations and spaces are in decline, the movie theater remains a place where the many become one: various ages and varied professions all watch the talkies together.

That mix is what I miss most when I watch a movie at home: The chatty teenagers near the concession stand, the gossiping couples who are always first in their seats; the collective sighs and gasps and enthused whispers of commentary during the film; even the hokey clapping at the movie’s end. I suppose we have comment sections and message boards as digital surrogates, but I live for the unexpected conversations that follow movie screenings; even if I’m only eavesdropping, those conversations are as memorable to me as the movies themselves.

I’m also not capable of maintaining the disciplines of the theater when I watch at home. I leave the lights on and then start and stop as I please, sometimes even abandoning a film halfway through. I can’t say I’ve ever been “kidnapped by the movie,” as Susan Sontag described, while watching at home. “To be kidnapped,” Sontag wrote, “you have to be in a movie theater, seated in the dark among anonymous strangers.” To capture us, the movie must be bigger than us: Its actors larger-than-life size, its scenery more overwhelming than anything around us in the world. To watch a movie at home is to have an experience that is entirely different: Rather than being kidnapped, we’re coddled.

Like almost everything I love, I worry about the movie theater’s decline, not because I think it will be the end of movies, but because the theater is such a distinctive space. I have gone to the movies when I could afford to go nowhere else, on first dates and last dates, with friends and with family, to celebrate accomplishments and times of great joy, and as a way of coaxing myself out of the house during times of despair and sadness. I worry about the last picture show because I don’t know where I would go if there were no cinemas.

And yet, I know that the cinema is not dying: Again, ticket sales have never been higher, even if fewer people are going. They aren’t dying, but cinemas are changing. By adding leather recliners, enhancing their menus with gourmet food and signature cocktails, screening cult classics alongside a few new releases, cinemas are well on their way to making moviegoing a luxury experience. The setting and snacks are already changing, and I suspect the films themselves will soon change, too.

It might be that in a few years only a limited number of movies debut in theaters and the rest of what’s on offer will have already proven itself in the direct-to-video market, or that everything on cinema screens is a few years or even decades old, screened not as a test, but as a celebration of popularity. Our cinemas will become something like museums, displaying what has already proven popular or earned acclaim, instead of galleries, where new art appears first for assessment. The picture shows won’t end, but they’ll become the last rather than the first stop for Hollywood.