Going to the movies is a vital part of our culture and it will survive the coronavirus
Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

My mother went to the hospital when I was 14, and it was the first (but certainly not last) time she talked about what my sister and I should do if she died: "Don't be sad. Say goodbye, and then go to a movie."

She was released the next day, but her guidance has always stayed with me. When times are tough, movies are an escape into a different world, one we enter for a couple of hours and then leave, emboldened, entertained, moved and sometimes even changed. Things don't have to be bad for movies to work their magic; they are equally transformative when life is grand.

Coronavirus has wreaked havoc upon movies and movie theaters around the country. For the first and only time since movies were invented, cinemas across the globe have shut down. World War II couldn't do that. The Great Depression couldn't do that. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kennedy assassination couldn't do that. Nothing has ever gotten in the way of the movies, until now.


Recent news that AMC Theatres, the biggest cinema chain in the U.S., could be facing bankruptcy, combined with reports that streaming services like Disney+ are seeing record growth during the unprecedented stay-at-home period, have led some to speculate that once the coronavirus threat has passed, moviegoing won't recover.

Moviegoing will survive.

To be sure, there's reason to worry. The number of tickets sold each year has eroded – 14 percent fewer people went to the movies in 2019 than 20 years earlier. Ticket prices, meanwhile, have risen steadily to offset that decline (it cost an average of $9.11 to see a movie last year, while in 1998, the year Titanic was released, the average ticket cost $4.69). Complaints about rude, talkative, device-addicted audiences are common, and long before the virus there was growing concern in Hollywood that people just wanted to stream at home. Movie studios, streaming services and film exhibitors have been eyeing each other warily for years, battling over the right of cinemas to show movies before they appear on Netflix or Amazon.


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That movie "window" has been in contention for decades, ever since studios discovered in the late 1980s that they could sell movies directly to consumers. Then, it took nearly a year for a huge hit like Top Gun to come to VHS tape, which was just one of the "ancillary revenue" streams studios could use to ensure a movie earned money long after its box-office run. Home video was at the top of that secondary revenue stream, but there were also sales to cable and network TV, to airlines and hotel chains, even theatrical re-releases.

On its own, chasing after the dream of a pure "direct-to-consumer" business, Hollywood drained that revenue stream. VHS gave way to DVD, which was subsumed almost entirely by streaming – and the ubiquity of streaming services meant travelers didn't need to pay to watch movies in hotels or airplanes.

And yet … none of that killed movie theaters. If fewer people, on average, saw movies in cinemas each year, about 3 million people were still going to movie theaters every day, and despite the fluctuations, that number had remained fairly constant.


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It may be nothing compared with pre-television moviegoing; in 1946, 90 million people went to the movies once a week, but by 1960 that had plummeted to 40 million. Naysayers predicted the death of movie theaters then, but larger-than-life gimmicks like CinemaScope, Cinerama, the first wave of 3-D and even Smell-O-Vision cropped up, and movie lovers proved that they could be passionate about movies and TV, that one didn't have to usurp the other.

Likewise, those 15 to 20 million people who go to the movies each week despite the advent of streaming prove that sitting in the dark is a habit moviegoers don't want to break.

There's no doubt movie exhibitors have a difficult task ahead. They're going to need to reassure audiences – quickly and constantly – that moviegoing is safe. To begin, they might need to limit the number of tickets sold, and to show movies less frequently, with vigilant and high-profile cleaning in between screenings.

They're going to need to be scrupulous about cleanliness – more scrupulous than they have been, for sure. Snack bars, restrooms and auditoriums will need to be equally spotless, and movie theaters will need to offer many options for audiences to clean their own seats and spaces. It's not going to be easy. The most important innovations won't be on screen, they'll be in the auditoriums themselves.

But all those wonderful people out there in the dark are going to return. It's in their nature. And "their" means "our." We need movies. We need the reassurance, hope, excitement, belief, happiness and promise that they bring. We have always craved stories in the dark. The brilliant light of the projector is our fire, and just as we have for eons we will gather around it to be told stories that help us make sense of our terrifying, glorious, overwhelming world.

That will never be more true than after this collective trauma, when we finally all begin to stagger out of our houses to see how the world has changed. That time will come, and like the victims of any disaster, we will take stock and find that some have fared better than others. We will assess what we have retained, mourned what we have lost, and we will all follow my mother's words: "Don't be sad. Say goodbye, and then go to a movie."

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less