Alan Lightman is a writer, physicist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1915, my 24-year-old grandfather, M.A. Lightman, was looking out of a hotel window in Colbert County, Ala., when he saw a long line of people waiting to get into a movie theater. In those early days of film, many cinemas were simply converted storefronts outfitted with a projector and folding chairs for the audience. Moving pictures were more than photographs and different from books. They transmitted romance, danger and comedy straight into your emotional bloodstream, with no need for translation and no intermediaries.

My grandfather, the son of Hungarian immigrants, had been trained as an engineer. But he always fancied himself a showman. Looking out the window, he decided to try out the movie business.

In 1916, M.A. opened his first theater, the Liberty, where he played the original, silent version of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” In 1931, he was elected president of the Motion Picture Theater Owners of America, the forerunner of today’s National Association of Theatre Owners.

As a child in the late 1950s, I sometimes ventured into the projection booths of my grandfather’s movie theaters, claustrophobic rooms containing two movie projectors, each mounted with a giant reel of celluloid film. Like a fish tank, the front wall of the booth was all glass. I can still feel the heat from the intensely bright “carbon arc lamps,” which shined a powerful light through the film. The light then travelled through a focusing lens, then through the glass wall and out into the theater, finally landing on the movie screen 200 feet away.

Even at that age, I knew that something magical was at work. We were creating another world out there on the screen, a world of joy and sadness, laughter, romance, places far away in space and in time, heroes and heroines and ordinary people — a world that moviegoers could enter and live other lives. We were giving our audience a common culture.

Movies are the principal medium by which we tell and preserve stories about ourselves and about the world. Think of “Doctor Zhivago,” telling the story of the Russian Revolution; or “Schindler’s List,” helping to define our understanding of the Holocaust; or “The Big Short,” making the numbers behind the 2008 financial crash legible for lay audiences.

Over the decades, movies and movie theaters have survived many competing technologies that threatened their extinction, among them television, VHS tapes, DVDs and Blu-rays, and streaming. Through all of these worthwhile advances, people continued to leave their homes to watch movies in theaters. From 2010, just after streaming became prominent, to the beginning of 2020, the number of movie theaters nationwide remained nearly constant, going from 5,773 to 5,798. Annual ticket sales dropped by only 7 percent, from about 1.33 billion to about 1.24 billion.

Seeing a movie in a public theater on a giant screen, surrounded by other people, is not only entertainment. It is an experience, a communal activity, a night out of the house almost everyone can afford.

Then came the covid-19 pandemic. Few industries have suffered more than movie theaters. The small number of theaters that remain open have seen attendance decline dramatically. National Association of Theatre Owners chief John Fithian recently begged for federal aid, calling relief “the ONLY solution that will provide the bridge that theaters need to see them into next year.” Although movies will undoubtedly still be made and streamed into private homes, if theaters do not survive, something irreplaceable will have been lost.

We are social creatures. No matter how comfortable our living rooms and sophisticated our technology, we need community, we need physical contact with one another. According to the General Social Survey, since the 1970s, there has been a deterioration in participation in such communal experiences as parent-teacher associations, Lions Clubs and Rotary Clubs, even bowling leagues. It may be too late to save those institutions, but it is not too late to save movie theaters.

I vividly remember my excitement at seeing the first “Star Wars” movie, in 1977, at a downtown theater in Boston. That first image of the underside of a spaceship sailing through the galaxy, on that large screen, was so startling and innovative that you could hear everyone else in the audience gasp along with you. We were floating in outer space.

Here, writ large on the screen, was our modern version of the ancient hero’s journey, dating back to the ancient Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh. Here were the enduring themes of chivalry, good vs. evil, conquest and dominion, fashioned for our technological age. We moviegoers left the theater in throngs, talking to each other, sharing impressions, some of us speechless. But all of us felt that we now shared some magical bond. Lawmakers should act to save that magic.

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