The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion No more home screeners. Critics should watch movies in theaters like everyone else.

A man watches a movie at a cinema in Buenos Aires on March 3, 2021. (Natacha Pisarenko/AP)
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Movie reviewers have been among the fiercest critics of returning to theaters during the coronavirus era, a campaign that continues despite years of these same people claiming to prize the theatrical experience and months of general audiences coming back to the big screens. It’s time for them to give it up.

Initially, some of the hesitance was fair, particularly given the concentration of critics in hard-hit New York City. Accustomed to getting first looks and early access yet reeling from the city’s lockdown, they argued that screens should be shuttered nationwide and that directors such as Christopher Nolan who insisted on showing films theatrically were practically murderers.

Never mind that seeing a movie in a spacious auditorium with high ceilings, dedicated air filtration and distanced seating while everyone is masked, quiet and facing the same way is not a particularly risky pandemic activity. Grant that when contact tracing was being truly attempted, no outbreak anywhere in the world was tied to theaters. No matter: Any risk of transmission was deemed too great. Critics demanded, and largely (though not universally) got, access to screening links at home.

Following the arrival of the vaccines, rules in theaters relaxed and masks became rarer, at least where I live, in Dallas. But cinemas and their superb circulation are still relatively safe indoor locations — and you can wear an N95 mask if you remain worried, further reducing your risk. Of course, common sense suggests a raucous, sold-out showing of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is a larger vector for infection than, say, a quarter-full “Macbeth.”

But if you’re vaccinated, the danger is minimal even if you catch the coronavirus. Study after study in state after state shows that those who are vaccinated have a negligible risk of being hospitalized or dying.

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Yet critics continue to demand access to screening links. The latest salvo came in the Los Angeles Times, where critics said they were nervous about seeing “Scream” in theaters as Paramount is requiring. The two main arguments against requiring in-person attendance are the virus and a desire to increase accessibility for critics who do not live near a metropolitan area offering press screenings.

As noted, the vaccines have mooted health concerns. The youngest cohort, a portion of which is vaccine-ineligible, has never been at high risk (only 710 of the 839,000 who have died with covid-19 in the United States are under 18), and of the tiny number of fully vaccinated who have died, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says three-quarters of them had four or more comorbidities. For the truly at-risk — the cancer survivors; the immunocompromised — perhaps studios could be slightly more accommodating, though I’d recommend they require doctor’s notes.

The broader accessibility question is a bit trickier. There’s always been a disparity among critics who live in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago; critics who live in other major metropolitan areas; and critics who live in areas without regular press screenings. If studios are going to offer links to critics in the big cities, the argument goes, there’s no particularly good reason not to offer them to everyone.

Maybe. But all of this focuses on what critics want. Of course, critics want to do their job from their couch. I’m a critic. I like getting links at home a week before a film’s release. It makes my life easier.

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But it makes my viewing experience worse. And studios are loath to send out screening links because they know it. Perhaps critics don’t realize this, but the studios can see how we watch the movies via the links they send us. They can see where we pause, how many times we rewind, how often we start again altogether. Most tellingly, they know when a critic checks out completely: said critic lets the movie play all the way through the credits. No one watches a (non-Marvel) movie all the way through the credits.

Watching at home just encourages bad habits. It introduces kids, laptops, pets, phones, doorbells, Twitter, bathroom breaks, endless distractions. And we haven’t done much to earn the trust of studios; just look at the people “attending” a virtual festival who live-tweet movies they’re watching for the first time.

Filmmakers share studios’ hesitance. Michel Hazanavicius decided to skip Sundance this year when the film festival announced at the last minute it was going virtual-only, and for good reason. The atomized experience of watching a festival movie at home cannot possibly re-create the in-person festival experience. And it can’t help moviemakers build the buzz they need to sell their films.

Critics’ frustration is understandable. But studios and filmmakers are correct to counter writers’ desire for greater convenience with the fact that watching films at home is simply inferior to doing so safely in a theater.