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The Politics of Moviegoing
Photo by Thomas Kinto / Unsplash

The Politics of Moviegoing

Film marketing and distribution are broken. It’s not Hollywood’s problem. It’s ours.

I didn’t expect a movie like Thelma to draw much of a crowd at 11 a.m. on a weekday at the one theater in Cookeville, Tennessee. Even before COVID, I’d gotten used to being the only person in an auditorium–including for evening showtimes of bigger releases that were a few days past their opening weekend. Though the film took Sundance by storm and has managed to maintain a glowing reception since its release on June 21st, I’d finally bought into the early summer hype that moviegoing might finally be dead after a string of high-profile box-office misfires like The Fall Guy and Furiosa.

But an auditorium of dozens had turned out to see 94-year-old June Squibb as the gun-toting victim of a phone scam who teams up with Shaft’s Richard Roundtree on a 2-up motor scooter ride through the San Fernando Valley to get her money back Mission: Impossible-style. 

Thelma clearly had an audience outside of arthouse theaters powered by some good–old-fashioned word-of-mouth. Despite nonexistent marketing from Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Pictures, the movie was connecting. It’s an intergenerational story about the power of family that is unafraid to interrogate some hard truths about death and aging–as hilarious as it is profound.

With a little advertising and a few more weeks, it could have been a breakout hit and a surefire awards contender—this summer’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding or, at least, Little Miss Sunshine. But it had its final showings in Nashville before the Fourth, struck down by the latest Hollywood cash grab and soon to be streaming. 

Despite the optics, 2024 has been one of the best summers for moviegoing in and around Nashville. Those who attended the Belcourt’s 1999 retrospective or tribute to Nicole Kidman witnessed movies like the Big Tobacco thriller The Insider and Eyes Wide Shut pack auditoriums in ways that seemed like a pipe dream when they underperformed during their original releases. Halfway through the season, Hollywood has released a host of films on par with the class of 1999, including The Fall Guy, Furiosa, and The Bikeriders. Like their predecessors 25 years ago, all have initially gone bust. 

Yet, these were not unfortunately ignored gems like Magnolia or Fight Club that the studios stayed behind until they found their audience. They were dumped onto streaming days after their releases, victims of lazy marketing that didn’t bother understanding them and an audience now conditioned to wait for Netflix. 

Maybe the movies don’t matter but to a select few. Maybe they do, but the convenience of home viewing makes moviegoing as a communal activity seem obsolete. Maybe Hollywood is out of touch, a corporate behemoth that has taken sides in a perceived culture war. But there’s a difference between a culture war and a corporate war on culture where everything is intentionally reduced to content consumed passively and in isolation.

In A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe, Nobel-winning Franco-Czech writer Milan Kundera reflects on his homeland’s identity in the shadows of Hitler and Stalinist control. For Kundera, a fundamental difference exists between media under state authority and the books, cinema, plays, and literary reviews he defines as integral to nourishing the ultimately successful Central European revolts. As Kundera writes, “That’s why, when the Russians occupied Czechoslovakia, they did everything possible to destroy Czech culture. This destruction had three meanings: first, it destroyed the center of opposition; second, it undermined the identity of the nation, enabling it to be more easily swallowed up by Russian civilization; third, it put a violent end to the modern era, the era in which culture still represented the realization of supreme values.” 

While America and the Czech Republic do not quite share the same cultural milieu, the destruction of which Kundera speaks remains at the heart of the conflict that has slowly undermined the U.S. over the last decade. Rather than outright seizure, an alliance of corporate and political elites have embarked on a campaign to turn all culture into media–not state-run but either paying aspirational lip service to the powers that be or unceremoniously dropped into the recesses of digitized streaming services from Prime to Audible. Tellingly, the translated essays that make up A Kidnapped West were released last year–on bookstore end caps for a week or two before Britney’s memoir and yet another universally lauded novel about slaves put it in its proper place. 

Consequently, those laying claim to the culture wars make the fundamental miscalculation that Hollywood in total is the enemy. Such self-proclaimed rebels produce inferior art with diminishing returns, adopting a strategy that the best approach to winning said conflict is outright refusal to understand that which they purport to fight against. The solution is not to, in Kundera’s parlance, create more media. It’s to understand culture. To curate one’s taste. To challenge one’s understanding. To articulate why a particular book or film is utterly bankrupt. To experience culture communally in packed auditoriums and stadiums. Yes, Universal is releasing The Bikeriders on streaming Tuesday–just 17 days after its opening weekend. But it’s a cultural product that demands to be seen in a theater where it can enrich our conversations and deepen our lives in ways that nudge us to reach our true potential as individuals who are part of a much bigger project. 

In a recent interview with Marketwatch, The Belcourt Theatre’s executive director, Stephanie Silverman, heralded repertory series like 1999 as the engine that has kept independent cinemas afloat during a post-pandemic crisis that, in truth, the sector exacerbated with its lingering fealty to ineffective COVID protocols. While the attendance that the Belcourt has seen this summer for titles available on streaming serves as a rebuttal to those declaring the movie theater dead, it also repositions what was once the most democratic space in America into the playground of the cultural elite–Vanderbilt students and professors, donors with six-figure incomes who can afford to shrug off tax increases for utopian projects, and hipsters who enjoy earnest teen dramas and midnight movies as high camp rather than the stuff of intellectual and emotional formation for those outside the urban center. The result is far too often a media mindset under the aegis of culture that primarily serves to fuel social capital. 

But that’s not the way Thelma or Kundera want us to see it. Culture is rooted in a productive populism intent on building big-tent communities, or, as Kundera puts it, “the living value around which all people rally.” When such identity is threatened, cultural life is supposed to intensify, not hinge on rarified group membership or weekends on the couch where reality TV is made interchangeable with the greatest American films. Movies aren’t media. They are the integral threads of our cultural fabric best experienced on hot summer nights in the presence of others who may not fully belong to all our niche communities but acknowledge the desire to understand ourselves and aspire to something more.