China closed swathes of cinemas on Friday in response to the outbreak of novel coronavirus which started in the city of Wuhan and has now killed 26 people [old news: the figure is up to 106 as of this writing]. The closures come a day after the distributors and producers of the seven major blockbusters that had expected to launch from Jan. 25 cancelled their films’ releases.
Chinese New Year is the commercial high point of the cinema industry year in mainland China, with well over $1 billion of box office revenue normally anticipated to flow through turnstiles in a week of celebration and family gatherings. It is also the peak time of year for internal travel, when typically half of China’s 1.4 billion population return to their hometowns to be reunited with family....
Cinema chains closing their theaters include Wanda, Dadi, Lumiere Pavilions, Emperor, Bona and CGV. But, for the moment, the closures are not nationwide, nor total. China counted some 70,000 screens in 11,000 complexes at the end of 2019.
Variety — which famously announced the day after the 1929 Crash that Wall Street had “...laid an egg,” — is all about showbiz, so may seem a little callous in light of the current epidemic. Still, as a former theater operator, the piece got me to thinking.
In 2019, according to the National Association of Theater Operators, there were 41,172 screens. in the U.S. With movie theater attendance in trouble everywhere here, thanks to binge-watching, streaming, and other activities we all indulge in, it’s clear we’re losing, rather than gaining, screens. Netflix barely aired Scorceses’ The Irishman before retiring it for home viewing, and you don’t have to ask your friends if they paid for tickets to all the Oscar-nominated flicks available now on the big screen in your bedroom. We don’t go out to the movies the way we used to; or the way the Chinese clearly still do.
The movie palace I was involved in operating for one year, 1976, The St. George Theatre in Staten Island, New York, had at that time 2, 672 seats, all facing a single screen. In the thirties, forties and fifties, movie palaces had pretty much blanketed the continent, when the movies were a twice or thrice weekly way of life, a babysitting service, a place to get free dishes, and the only way to see a news program (newsreels), or enjoy a cartoon. But by ’76, it had all changed: palaces were on the way out.
Our St. George was a sparsely populated cave of sorts, and still, with its copious balcony and loge, it managed to have a lot of life.
Here’s a glimpse from an earlier post:
You can get lost in a movie palace: we knew it, and the younger patrons who didn’t want to go home knew it too. The balcony and loge were off limits — we hardly ever sold enough tickets to populate even the orchestra. But kids of a certain age — boys who are thirteen, fourteen — like to test limits. Exit doors in the balcony led to fire escapes. Although we weren’t using the balcony, the FDNY had forbidden us to chain these doors shut. So one kid would buy a ticket and sneak upstairs to let his friends, who had climbed the fire escape, in for free. For the most part, they’d hang in the upper part of the house 'til closing time, even bringing their own concession: beer and KFC. Pot-smoke drifted to the dome. On Friday and Saturday nights after the midnight show, you could hear them breathing up there, waiting for us to close and go home.
Addressing them directly was the best way to flush them out. Sam, the floor manager, who knew all the kids’ families, would stand center stage and call them by name, “You up there Randall?...Nicky, hear me now. Don make me tell yo Mama...”
Exit doors on unoiled hinges groaned, followed by the rapid slap of sneakers flying down the fire escape.
What did they want? How many Snickers bars can one adolescent boy consume? Or was it a night in the shadows back stage they were after?
The theater was a magic — even a sacred — space, a kind of human-made cave. Tired as I was at the end of a work day, it was hard to go home, so who could fault a boy?
The St. George was, for all of us, our Luray Caverns, our Lascaux, the screen, a cave-wall waiting for the splash of pigmented light.
This post, in an earlier version, aired on 2/10/15, garnering the following response from friend of Starts Wednesday, Clifford Browder:
You claim you were novices trying to run the St. George profitably, but in some ways you showed wisdom. Your handling of young adolescent boys, for example -- you did it just right. At that age I wasn't letting friends in for free, but I confess that I and a friend may have sent a candy wrapper or two spiraling down from the balcony to the orchestra … until an usher caught us and made us go sit downstairs. But there is karmic justice: in the same spot in the balcony I and that same friend were so horrified by the spectacle of a villain about to be eaten by crocodiles that we cowered down on the floor, where we couldn't see the screen. Probably missed the best part of that B movie.