Peter Bart: Signs Of Cinema Comeback Emerge Despite Theater Shutdowns & Awards-Show Glitches

The Oscar show tanked. The Golden Globes self-immolated. The Dome shuttered. The vaunted movie museum seemed stuck in push-back mode.

The subtext was clear: Movies are extinct, just as the TV bingers kept warning. Really?

Fighting my own defeatism, I’ve asked myself some questions this week: As a hard-core movie fan, why haven’t I ventured to a box office this spring to buy a ticket? Or at least sampled my first drive-in since my teens? Even actors like Vin Diesel and Matthew McConaughey are doing public-service spots begging filmgoers to recognize that “the big screen is back.”

I saw Promising Young Woman on my home screen months ago and liked it, but why not view it again at the Landmark with a real audience of promising young women? Movies can become an experience, I remind myself, rather than a fleeting glimpse.

Several years ago I tried to demonstrate my fealty to cinema by joining the esteemed nonprofit organization called the American Cinematheque. For a time I relished its cineaste programs. Lately, however, I’ve become guilty of avoiding visits to its aging relic, the Egyptian Theater, and haven’t regularly checked out its virtual conversations with filmmakers. Attending meetings in years past, I’d occasionally dozed off during lugubrious dissertations on deficits.

Again, defeatism loomed, but then came those nasty questions: Isn’t this is a moment that calls for some manner of commitment? The upshot: I’ve signed on to the Cinematheque’s new activist agenda – one which represents an affirmation of cinema.

I’m not the only one, apparently. The group said today it saw a record number of membership signups in one day on the heels of unveiling the re-opening of its refurbished Aero Theater in Santa Monica, with a vital new program of screenings. The 1990 classic Cinema Paradiso will be screened June 9 at the vintage 420-seat theater built in 1940 (it’s a private screening, with public ones to start a week later). In the Heights will follow. Tickets for the general public will open now on May 24.

Also opening further downtown will be the Los Feliz theater, whose big screen will be re-geared for Cinematheque programs. This will continue while the Egyptian, long the Cinematheque’s principal venue, undergoes an accelerated re-construction.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit also is amping up its virtual conversations with filmmakers, who answer questions about their new movies or streamers. Past Q&A sessions for the Cinematheque have proven rewarding for filmmakers like Bong Joon-ho, who gained early recognition for his then unknown movie, Parasite.

Reconstruction of the Egyptian itself signals a re-awakening, since it will likely be the last downtown “movie palace” ever to be built, or re-built. The multimillion-dollar project is being funded by Netflix, which bought the theater from the Cinematheque two years ago. The deal allows the nonprofit to exercise control of its screenings and other weekend programs Friday through Sunday (the Cinematheque also contributed to the renovation). Other nights will feature Netflix movies and its own headline events.

As a whole, these initiatives represent a metaphor for what will hopefully reemerge as a thriving cinematic culture, buttressing platforms of both past and future.

The fact that innovative films might play at a retro palace itself reflects an affirmation for a sector of cinema that is now in doubt. The mega studios and the exhibitors are committing massive resources to tentpole movies and franchises.

There is grave concern, on the other hand, for the prospects of the “niche” film that depends on film festivals, loving reviews and meticulous platform releases. Festival dates are still fluctuating. The future plans of art house theaters like the Landmark still waver as managements shift in response to the ambiguities of the marketplace.

Given all this, I hope other moviegoers will be asking themselves some hard questions in the coming months. Just because we all over-invested in our home theaters, must we remain imprisoned by them? Perhaps it’s time to surrender both our masks and our inertia and venture forth again. Popcorn smells better than inertia.

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