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Moviegoers felt a mix of old-fashioned joy, Covid-era anxiety in returning to theaters



Before the pandemic, Gabby Richards had never seen a Marvel movie. During lockdown, she took the advice of a friend and plowed through more than 20 installments in the franchise — all from the comfort of her apartment in Washington, D.C.

But this summer, as multiplexes started to reopen their doors and studios rolled out a handful of high-profile releases, Richards, 28, decided it was time to leave the house and see her first Marvel epic — the Scarlett Johansson spinoff “Black Widow” — on the big screen.

“Marvel movies were not created to be watched at home. They were created to be watched on the big screen,” said Richards, who saw the film at one of her local venues, the Regal Gallery Place. “It hit me for the first time.”

Richards was one of countless people who returned to the movies this year as some across the U.S. gradually eased back into the familiar rituals of pre-pandemic life. In interviews, casual moviegoers who went back to the box office described feeling enticed by the promise of audiovisual spectacle, a reprieve from quarantine monotony or an escape from day-to-day stress.

In the hushed dark of the theater, surrounded by rows of empty seats, Richards was gripped by the widescreen action scenes and booming sound design. She felt transported far, far away from the buzz of the laundry machine that usually accompanied her at-home viewings.

Richards and other filmgoers helped power the success of blockbusters such as “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “No Time to Die” and the biggest release of the pandemic era: “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which opened with a staggering $260 million in North American ticket sales.

Simu Liu as Shang-Chi in Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Jasin Boland / Marvel Studios

But not every potential ticket-buyer was as enthusiastic about the prospect of returning to brick-and-mortar cinemas. In the face of the omicron variant and renewed anxiety about breakthrough infections, many continue to feel that shuffling into a dark room with a bunch of strangers is too much of a risk, even if some theaters require proof of vaccination. The spread of the variant could spell more troubles for the industry in 2022.

The financial hardships of the pandemic weigh heavily on much of the country, too. A night at the movies is a luxury that many simply cannot afford.

Christina Ortega, 34, a medical receptionist who lives in central California, shelled out around $115 to take her family to see the bloody action flick “Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City,” which runs for just over an hour and 40 minutes. The tickets for a matinee showing cost $15 each and snacks totaled roughly $55.

“You know, with my budget lately, I thought it was a little outlandish,” Ortega said. “I could’ve spent that money on groceries. But it’s not something we do every day, so I decided to go for it.”

Ortega has not returned to the movies since that outing, instead catching up with new releases on streaming platforms.

The return to theatrical venues was not without the occasional annoyance, as well.

Nicholas Jackson, a 34-year-old freelancer who works in film production, savored Wes Anderson’s visually rich “The French Dispatch” but felt irritated every time he needed to yank down his mask to take a sip of soda.

I really liked the movie, but the whole time I was on edge, leaning into my poor husband’s seat and squishing him.

RACHEL BREW ON SEEING “FREE GUY”

Rachel Brew, a 30-year-old who lives in North Carolina, enjoyed the Ryan Reynolds comedy “Free Guy” but felt uncomfortable sitting next to a young couple who refused to wear face coverings.

“I wish I would have talked to somebody at the theater and asked to switch seats,” Brew said. “I really liked the movie, but the whole time I was on edge, leaning into my poor husband’s seat and squishing him.”

The experience soured her on the Covid-era theatrical experience, and she said she is not sure she will return to a cinema in the Raleigh area “for the foreseeable future.” She is keen to see next year’s crop of Marvel films, but she expects she will wait for them to land on Disney+.

Hollywood studios, for better or worse, made it easier to stream new releases in your living room this year, shortening the traditional “window” between theatrical engagements and video-on-demand debuts — or premiering new titles simultaneously in multiplexes and via streaming. Warner Bros., for example, released its entire 2021 slate simultaneously in theaters and via HBO Max, giving viewers options: watch “Dune” on a colossal IMAX screen or stream “Dune” on an iPhone at a coffee shop — you decide.

Lena Funke, a student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, certainly is not a stranger to Netflix and the other marquee streaming services.

But she left the house a lot this year, eager to turn off her smartphone and dive into a distraction. She bought tickets to more than 20 movies in the second half of the year, from horror flicks (“Candyman,” “Malignant,” “Antlers”) to aggressively marketed franchise offerings like “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.” (She saves her ticket stubs, and she graciously read them to an NBC News reporter.)

The lingering threat of Covid-19 was not lost on Funke, 19, but it did not deter her from frequently venturing to her local venue, the Cinemark Fallen Timbers 14 in Maumee, Ohio.

“You can choose your seats prior to going in at my theater. I tend to pick a seat that’s further away from other people, and all the employees wear masks,” she said. “I’m not really worried, personally.”

Young people like Funke were key to the return of moviegoing in the second half of the year.

“Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” a pulpy comic book sequel, earned an unexpectedly commanding $212 million thanks to robust turnout from teenagers and young adults, for example; 56 percent of the audience were people under the age of 25. In general, Marvel’s grip on moviegoing culture rarely loosened.

But older moviegoers were apparently more reluctant to head back to multiplexes — and “adult-skewing dramas,” as they are known in the entertainment industry, often paid the price.

“King Richard,” a well-reviewed tennis biopic anchored by an Oscar-friendly Will Smith performance, opened in North America with a slim $5.7 million. (The film premiered simultaneously on HBO Max, which does not disclose viewership data.) “The Last Duel,” a $100 million #MeToo fable featuring Matt Damon and Adam Driver, bombed at the domestic box office. (Seventy percent of the audience was over age 25.) Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed retelling of “West Side Story” has so far underperformed, too.

Demi Singleton as Serena Williams, Saniyya Sidney as Venus Williams and Will Smith as Richard Williams in “King Richard.”Warner Bros.

“The older audiences are showing greater concern for the pandemic, and you’re seeing that in the numbers,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, a firm that tracks box office data.

Dergarabedian pointed to a few exceptions, namely “The French Dispatch” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming-of-age tale “Licorice Pizza,” two celebrated films from brand-name auteurs that have drawn large crowds in select cinemas and notched some of the strongest per-screen average grosses of the year.

In some ways, Covid-era box-office trends — boom times for expensive, effects-driven spectacles; hard times for nearly everything else — accelerated shifts that were already taking shape before the pandemic. If you care about the theatrical viability of films that are not stitched to corporate-owned franchises, there are reasons to worry.

But amid the industry anxiety and cultural hand-wringing, some moviegoers were just looking for a mental getaway. 

Hannah Ball, 28, one of two reporters at a small newspaper in Fenton, Michigan, left the house in February to see a remastered version of Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in the IMAX format with her mom.

Ball had grown up watching the three fantasy epics on home video, but nothing could have prepared her for the grandeur of Jackson’s vision when it screened at the NCG Trillium theater in Grand Blanc.

“It was such a vast difference,” Ball said. “The giant screens. The surround sound. I felt like I was watching them for the first time.”

Yet, in the final minutes of the film, as Frodo bids farewell to his Hobbit comrades and departs Middle-earth, Ball was overcome by familiar emotions. The musical score swelled, and Ball broke down crying in the dark.

“I couldn’t look away,” she said.

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