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On this episode of Social Distance, James Hamblin and Katherine Wells talk with the Atlantic staff writer David Sims about the future of the film industry.

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What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

Katherine Wells: David, have you seen The Wretched yet?

David Sims: I am vaguely aware of a horror movie called The Wretched. Is that what you’re talking about?

Wells: It’s the most popular movie in America right now!

James Hamblin: How do you not know The Wretched?  

Sims: By what metric has it been deemed the most popular movie?

Wells: By the weekend box office. It’s number one!

Sims: The entirety of the weekend box office right now is like 20 drive-ins open around the country.

Wells: David, it is your job to cover the movie industry. You don’t even know what the No. 1 movie in America is right now.

Sims: Good for The Wretched. There’s this truly bizarre confluence of things happening right now. The only theaters open are drive-ins in states that are not completely closed down, and the only movies available are these obscure indie movies. This is something people might not know, but the purpose of drive-throughs in recent movie history has been to get blockbusters to nice round numbers.

Black Panther was sitting at $699 million for a while, so Disney started throwing it on into drive-ins, months after it had come out, just to bump it up to $700 million. Everyone loves a nice round number. $699 million is decent. But $700 million? Wow.

Hamblin: It seems like we could do lots of drive-ins now, though. That could be a really popular thing this summer, right?

Sims: I think they should come back. They have this reputation as being kind of old-fashioned, and the sound is kind of cruddy, but surely now with cars being what they are and radios being fancier and Bluetooth existing, you can probably have a fancier experience at the drive-in than you could back in the day.

Wells: What was the state of movie theaters before this? I feel like people have been predicting the doom of the theater experience for years.

Sims: It’s a common prediction that because everyone has these nice home theaters and Netflix and whatnot, the movie theater business will die. But theaters being shut down has exposed that the theater industry is crucial to giant studios, which for the most part aren’t interested in proceeding without theaters. The profits come from selling tickets.

Studios could take this opportunity to say, “Look, there’s no theaters; we’re going to put our movies out online.” Instead, with a few small exceptions, mostly children’s films, all the studios are saying they’ll just release them later. Studios can’t make the sort of killing they’re used to making without movie theaters.

No one’s making an Avengers movie for your television. That wouldn’t make sense. You’d be spending ungodly amounts of money for no good reason. That’s how this infrastructure works. Some people say that, over the last decade or so, things have ballooned in a way that was maybe a little uncontrollable, with studios relying more and more on these really big-bet movies that have to be right.

Wells: Critics such as yourself have complained that the incentive to create these cookie-cutter action movies means that we’re not getting great movies.

Sims: Yes, but at the same time, movie theaters cannot exist on blockbusters alone. Multiplexes have many screens and many times to fill. They have to show other movies. That is why mid-budget and smaller movies still exist. You need to sell tickets to other things. You can’t have an Avengers every weekend.

Wells: So this is threatening to smaller productions too?

Sims: Yeah, for sure. Those smaller movies are being debated right now because a lot of studios would happily explore releasing them online while theaters are closed. Universal released Trolls World Tour, a children’s film about little dancing trolls, online during this pandemic to, I think, experiment with what kind of a profit they can make doing this. The theater chains have been very hostile, and AMC have said they will not show any more Universal films. The theater chains know that they’re in this very vulnerable position right now because they’re closed and can’t really bargain with anybody.

Hamblin: You see so many movies in theaters. Are you going through theater withdrawal?

Sims: Yes. I miss it terribly. I love being with a crowd and experiencing the communal feeling of drawing off the energy of a movie. I’m also just a movie fan, and seeing a movie on a giant screen in a very dark room where you can’t distract yourself in any way—that is the way to see a movie. You cannot replicate that experience at home no matter how hard you try. There’s still something just special about being locked in with a movie.

Wells: Are there going to be new movies coming out anytime soon?

Sims: So movie theaters will eventually reopen in some fashion. Maybe they’ll have everyone sit two seats away from each other. But they will need movies to show. The next big movie on the schedule that has not yet been moved is Christopher Nolan’s film Tenet. It’s some sort of time-travel action movie. It’s sort of James Bond-y, and it’s got the big stars and big locations; it’s a big fancy movie. It’s going to be very cinematic. It’s made to be seen on the biggest screen, and Christopher Nolan is a fierce and ready defender of the cinema experience.

So this movie has not been moved. It’s set for July 17. Everything before it that’s a big deal has already been postponed. Nolan is holding fast, and there’s all this reporting that he wants this to be the movie that tries to get people back into the theater. This might be a ludicrous idea. We might hear in a couple of weeks, no, they’ve given up; they’re going to push that one too.

Hamblin: They will.

Sims: James, you think there’s no chance?

Hamblin: No chance. Being together in an enclosed space is going to be our biggest challenge. Sitting for two hours in an enclosed space with people is very different from needing to quickly move through a grocery store where no single person is lingering the whole time who might be breathing out virus.

Sims: Well, they’ll have to bite the bullet on that. They’ll probably announce soon either way, whether it’s sticking or not. And if that’s not available, then it just becomes this ongoing question of, like, if you’re going to reopen theaters, what on earth are you gonna offer people that would get them back in?

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