The return of the summer blockbuster
Natalie Allton | Friday, August 25, 2023
In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, we were afraid some things would never return.
There was perhaps no industry more in peril than that of the cinema. At-home streaming services proved films could do well without a theatrical release, and for a while it looked like movie theaters would become a relic of the past. Why shell out for expensive tickets and popcorn to watch a movie in a room full of strangers when you could kick back at home and watch the same movie? Are movie theaters really so special?
The past few months have answered with a resounding “yes.” The summer of 2023 brought a storm of theatrical releases, from franchise installments like “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” “Insidious: The Red Door” and the seventh “Mission Impossible” to standalone films like “Talk to Me” and “Asteroid City.” And then, of course, there’s Barbenheimer.
You can’t go online without hearing about “Barbenheimer,” born of the simultaneous release of Christopher Nolan’s historical biopic “Oppenheimer” and Greta Gerwig’s bubblegum fantasy comedy “Barbie” on July 21. Instead of pitting the films against each other, the Internet turned the two into a double feature, with extensive discussion of how to map out the day in order to get the most from each film.
Barbenheimer is more than a meme. It’s a cultural event. It’s a social unifier. People are dressing up and making a day of it. It’s not uncommon to see a group of people in a public space dressed in shades of pink and know they’re going to the movies. And this is not an isolated incident — it’s a result of a larger sociocultural trend of prioritizing theatrical releases.
I watched six films in theaters this summer and still missed out on major ones like “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse.” That doesn’t include the films that I saw before the start of summer (like when I notoriously saw “Puss in Boots” three times in theaters earlier this year) or since returning to campus. Many of the shows were sold out, and the ones that weren’t were still packed — even for smaller or less-hyped movies like “The Last Voyage of the Demeter,” or films I saw weeks after their release, like “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.”
Even before the pandemic, it was rare to go to a theater to see a film, but something about the pandemic changed the way we think about cinemas. Going to the movies is an event. The films I saw this summer were made better by the audience gasping at the scares in “Insidious” or audibly adoring Ryan Gosling in “Barbie.” There’s a difference between watching a movie on a laptop and watching it on the big screen, and audiences have proven time and time again that they’re not only willing to pay for that difference but they’re also willing to dress in suit jackets and pink heels to make that difference memorable.
The ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes mean that this cinematic boom is likely to stall out next summer, but that doesn’t mean the enthusiasm will die out. There’s a pulsing and lasting demand for theatrical releases, which is both an asset to those on strike and a marker of film’s resilience through the pandemic.
Yes, tickets are overpriced. Yes, $15 for a small popcorn is ridiculous. Yes, you’re always going to forget to pee before the movie starts. We continue to go to the cinema regardless. Nicole Kidman is right: We come to this place for magic.