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The Last Days of the Cinema

In the week leading up to AMC and other theater chains closing their cinemas on March 16 to protect patrons from the coronavirus, the writing was on the wall. From Sunday March 8 to Saturday March 14, I saw firsthand—through four separate trips—how theaters struggled to bring people in.

You may ask, “Why put yourself at risk?” Frankly, I used the cinema as a form of escapism and a last ditch effort to enjoy going out before being locked in my house for the coming weeks.

In a world where there is grim news everywhere we go, a little (or a lot in my case) of an escape is desired. Anytime I turn on the news, it’s all about carnage ripping across the globe. I can’t listen to my favorite sports talk radio stations because there aren’t any sports to talk about anymore. When hanging out with friends, the virus is all we talk about. Facebook is a place where soccer moms ask for the best stores to buy toilet paper in the area, so social media is a wash. Plus looking at investments? Oh, that’s funny.

So, to be in a place for two hours in a brief moment of distraction was a nice break. When there’s bad news everywhere, the cinema is where it’s not permitted through the theater door. But in this case, it eventually shuttered the doors for six to 12 weeks, or the unforeseeable future.

Before I detail what it was like to be at the cinema in its final days, I can assure you that I practiced social distancing and played it as safe as possible. However, as much as people were upset at theaters staying open, social distancing was in full swing because it was practically empty anyway.

For instance, my first trip to a screening of Greed on Sunday, March 8 at Monmouth Mall’s AMC captured what was to come for cinemas. I had tickets on my phone and walked into an empty 150 occupant theater. Granted, Greed was a niche independent film on the fast fashion industry, so you could assume the crowd would be sparse anyway. But while big budget Hollywood movies grab headlines on the virus’s impact, small independent films have been hit hard too.

Throughout the rest of the week, there were only a handful of people in each theater for films big and small. On the day classes were canceled on Monday, March 9, there were only five people in a screening of Emma that night at the Monmouth Mall.

The same goes for a screening of The Invisible Man I went to Wednesday, March 12 at The Garden State Plaza’s AMC. Usually, GSP is bustling with folks shopping, grabbing a bite to eat, or getting in line for a movie, but I saw a tumbleweed go down the escalator when I went in. On that same day, AMC announced they would adopt social distancing practices by limiting theaters to 50 percent occupancy along with thoroughly cleaning their theaters. Clearly their efforts didn’t matter to folks.

My final day at the movies was capped with a 10 p.m. screening of Disney Pixar’s Onward at my local Hamilton AMC 24. It’s a mecca of theatergoing, but it was particularly sad to see how empty it was. They just refurbished a gorgeous IMAX Theater with brand new seats and specs, but there were only a handful of people there to see a screening of the silly Vin Diesel movie Bloodshot. In celebration of the new theater, there was an arch of yellow balloons going into a big popcorn bag for the lobby, but with a backdrop of a single person sitting behind the concession stand. As for the late Onward group, only four others were sitting with me in the dark at a massive theater that can hold over 500 people.

A couple days later, the theaters closed their doors until further notice. Although the cinema was empty with each visit, I can’t blame people for skipping out. In that final week, there wasn’t anything really worth seeing, especially nothing worth putting your health on the line for. I wasn’t yearning to see the movies I saw, but they were the only ones to see and I was desperate for some sort of escape. 

Plus, major releases decided to either postpone or release their films via streaming. For example, highly anticipated March releases like A Quiet Place Part II and Disney’s Mulan got their release dates pushed back to later in the year. With most spring movies being postponed, it demolished any hopes of getting people to come.

Although it was an unfortunate scene at the cinema in its final days, I already miss going. Throughout my days off, I find myself saying, “Boy, I wish I could go to a movie right now” when I’m doing absolutely nothing around the house. If anything, these coming months will prove how important movie magic is in our lives. Sure, movies can transport you to faraway places, but being in a theater is a part of that magic too. Hopefully there will be theaters to go to once the reel runs out on this darn virus.