an AMC theater sign looms over a parking lot, with a cityscape far in the distance
AMC Galewood Crossings 14 Credit: the author

Two-thirds of the way through my conversation with Rebecca Fons, director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago, her relief is palpable. “You know, I wondered if some of your questions were going to be like, ‘Is the death of cinema upon us?’ I’m really happy that they weren’t.” Undoubtedly, this is a question that she and a great deal of her peers have been asked directly and indirectly throughout their careers; it’s the “death knell of movie theaters that has been foretold, ringing for years,” in Fons’s words. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the echo of that bell that has reverberated since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, not only about movie theaters but about so many of the institutions that make up our cultural way of life. As recently as August 2023, the New 400 Theaters in Rogers Park was suddenly closed by owner Tony Fox of ADF Capital. The cinema had operated for over 100 years, having boasted itself as “the longest continually operating movie theater in Chicago,” and as previously reported by the Reader, having survived “two world wars, many periods of economic downturn, several owners, and now, two global pandemics.” As a historic neighborhood theater that prided itself on its community involvement and affordable movie tickets, the closure of the New 400 feels like a tremendous loss to anyone who champions the survival of the theatrical experience. 

The feared “death knell,” however, isn’t exclusive to independent and historic movie theaters. With the growing proliferation of streaming—coupled with this year’s monumental dual WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes—the fate of the traditional moviegoing experience appears to hang in the balance. In Chicago, the loss of the New 400 Theaters brings the city’s first-run theater total down to 17, with an additional six theaters accessible by CTA just past the city’s borders. Out of those 17 movie theaters, only four theaters exist outside of Chicago’s Loop, north, or northwest sides. Out of those four, only one is accessible by a CTA train line: Cinema Chatham on 87th, which is currently operated by Detroit-based small cinema chain Emagine Entertainment. 

It’s tempting in the fight for the survival of cinema to plead with audiences: Go to the movie theater! Support art cinema! Support smaller films! Be curious! But before we continue putting the onus on audiences to be curious in their moviegoing, we have to ask whether they even have the access, what factors determine that access, and how many people make those choices on audiences’ behalves long before they even have a chance to look up “movie showtimes near me.”

Credit: Amber Huff

Lauren Sheely, a Lakeview resident, lived in Beverly for most of her childhood up until college. She has a performing arts background primarily in theater, but moviegoing was a cherished family tradition that she’s carried into adulthood. She notes that compared to theater, which often has a reputation for being inaccessible as an art form, there’s an assumption that “movies are for everyone.”

“They’re pitched to us as such a part of our fabric and supposedly easily accessed by all of us,” Sheely says. “[Growing up,] we wouldn’t have been able to walk to a movie theater or [take the] bus to a movie theater, really. We’re big walkers, we enjoy walking, and [Beverly] is not really a walking neighborhood. Even if we had been motivated, there was nothing
close to us.” 

A hundred years ago, movie palaces were commonplace across nearly every part of Chicago. A crowdsourced database of movie theaters estimates nearly 600 theaters have either closed or been demolished in Chicago’s history (compared to approximately 340 in Los Angeles and 420 in New York City). An additional 20 or so historic venues still operate as theaters, but they either no longer screen first-run movies or operate exclusively as stage theaters. 

It is sometimes said that every map of Chicago is the same map. The reverberations of redlining and segregation in the city inevitably display themselves in most reported metrics, including income levels, pollution, access to public transportation, housing, and even voting patterns. Movie theaters may not be an issue as detrimental as the inequalities that divide Chicago’s communities, but the waning of their presence mirrors larger issues of economic opportunity in the city, community investment, and access to recreation and culture throughout Chicago.

When Hermosa resident Jon Hancock saw the trailer for the introspective A24 film Past Lives, he felt it was one of those films to see in theaters. “Sometimes you see a trailer, and you can feel in the trailer that the cinematography needs a big screen. And that can be a big film, or that can be something indie. I think I got trained into that through my parents. My dad is such a film guy and would want to go see it on the screen first. So that’s what I do.”

Hancock, who was raised on the west side and has lived across the south and west sides, goes to the AMC Galewood Crossings 14 most often these days, as it’s only a quick drive from his apartment. But for Past Lives, he had to go to the Regal Webster Place in Lincoln Park; it wasn’t playing at the theater closest to him. 

There’s also an underlying tension here that underscores the crossroads the film industry finds itself at as long as box office numbers are crucial to the survival of the cinematic experience. Geography isn’t the only obstacle to seeing a movie in Chicago, or really in many cinemas throughout the nation: accessibility is another key issue. Most theaters are equipped with closed captioning and audio description devices, but they can be burdensome and even nonfunctioning for audience members who need them. A rare selection of theaters in Chicago offer open-captioned screenings, but these options are limited to certain times and movies. And there are several other accessible considerations that continue to create barriers to moviegoing—barriers that exist across many cultural institutions—such as accessible aisles and seating, multilingual access (only a handful of theaters provide Spanish dubbed or subtitled screenings in Chicago), bathroom access, and sensory-friendly screenings. 

Cinephiles like Sheely and Hancock wish to continue the tradition of moviegoing and supporting cinemas and a diversity of films, but the planning involved is an increasingly prohibitive obstacle that the film industry must contend with. 

Credit: Amber Huff

Despite feeling the precarity of the pandemic, movie theaters are seeing renewed return to the movies. Even seasoned programmers were unable to fully anticipate the massive excitement that would surround the summer hits Barbie and Oppenheimer and their unlikely pairing as a double feature with a shared opening weekend. For many movie lovers, the phenomenon—affectionately memed as “Barbenheimer”—was both a battle cry for the preservation of in-theater experiences and a signal that these experiences aren’t going away anytime soon. Even with the most generous of projections, both films outpaced box office predictions, an even more remarkable feat without the ability of the ensemble casts to participate in promotion due to the strike. 

Barbie and Oppenheimer are a perfect example of if you give people new and interesting films, films by auteurs, films that aren’t sequels, people will come back to the movies,” says Ryan Oestreich, managing director at the Music Box Theatre.

Oestreich, Fons at Gene Siskel, and their programming colleagues (whether imbued with the title of “programmer” or wearing a programmer hat while overseeing other theater operations) have the challenging roles of anticipating the desires of their theaters’ audiences while meeting the expectations of distributor contracts, all while trying to keep the projector lights on—a calculus that often comes after decisions that have already been made, passed down, interpreted, and adjusted from one corporate body to the next to predict how an audience will behave, before even providing them the option to decide. 

Before a film goes to distribution, there are several decisions made by production companies and producers that dictate who the audience is for any given movie. A distribution company decides an audience for a film when it buys the rights, makes deals with exhibitors, and sets the contract terms for how many screens a film will play at and for how many showtimes. An exhibitor then makes additional decisions about its audience—for a small, independent theater, those decisions frequently come down to capacity, affordability of screening fees, balancing distributor contracts with existing obligations such as film festivals or regularly scheduled programming, and scheduling within an often limited number of available screens and time slots. 

For a larger chain theater, decisions may come down to determining which location will play well, predicting audience behavior and demographics. Debbie Pennie is Regal Entertainment Group’s director of film, overseeing the programming for Regal’s northwest locations (including both Chicago locations), as well as all independent film programming in Regal Cinemas nationwide. Pennie’s current position sees her balancing the typical wide releases expected from a chain against the hopes of elevating smaller films and filmmakers. “When I started, there wasn’t as much film, and now there’s so much film and access to content that you have to gross to stay. If you don’t, you get moved out [of being screened] pretty quickly,” she says.

Even in simplified terms, this is at least three rounds of decision-making—often taking place over multiple years—regarding what movies any given audience will have access to, and these terms do not even take into account the added decision-making that takes place through film festivals, advertisement, streaming, and changes in distribution agreements as more and more mergers and acquisitions take place in the industry.

In a metropolis as big as Chicago, we then see the choices limited from multiple angles: There are scant number of places where one can see a movie on the south or west sides, reflecting decades of disinvestment in economic and recreational opportunities (particularly for residents of color), and should a south- or west-sider find themselves at one of these fine few cinemas, layers of decision-making processes lead to a scarce selection of films to choose from.

A Lakeview resident could live within walking distance from three movie theaters providing an array of film options, ranging from the latest superhero movie to an art house film. For a Beverly resident, going to the movies might turn into an event. Sheely and Hancock both shared that despite living in the city, trips to movie theaters in the suburbs were frequent growing up, as those movie theaters would sometimes be more accessible than driving to the city’s limited nearby options. 

These are the challenges in a city—where there are often the most choices for moviegoing. Suburban areas may only have one Cineplex nearby, and rural communities are lucky if they have a movie theater at all.  

When teaching a class to DePaul University film students on the business of film festivals, Fons compares the process to an iconic scene from the movie The Devil Wears Prada where Meryl Streep eviscerates Anne Hathaway’s character for her casual dismissal of the fashion industry, reminding her, “You’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.”

“Yeah,” Fons agrees. “The choice gets made for all of us. A lot.” 

It’s likely too soon to begin digging cinema’s grave; new audiences are discovering a love for cinemas. Both WGA and SAG-AFTRA have concluded their hard-fought strikes, bringing cautious optimism that there will be better sustainability and transparency for artists in the streaming era and beyond. Original films by auteurs are successful, and intellectual properties no longer hold the same dominance as they used to. But audiences need to have the option to see these films in order to support them during the first run, when box office numbers not only determine a film’s success but determine the entire course of filmmaking in the future. 

For as long as movie theaters are still struggling to stay open, it’s unlikely that we’ll see many more open their doors anytime soon, leaving some regions with limited options for casual moviegoing. But if that is going to be the case for the time being, movie theaters will have to stay connected to their audiences and embrace the arrival of new ones. 

In the meantime, other efforts to bring a variety of films to a wider audience will pop up in their place. Groups ranging from Doc Films, the student-run repertory theater housed on the University of Chicago’s campus and one of the longest-running repertory theaters in Chicago, and Sweet Void Cinema, a one-year-old microcinema and production company forging a film community in Humboldt Park, fill gaps by hosting repertory screenings and other film-focused events. 

Hannah Yang, University of Chicago student and general chair of Doc Films, expresses how repertory screenings have the opportunity to sustain an overall practice of moviegoing. “Since streaming and digital have become dominant, our mission has become much more about sustaining the culture of movie-watching and going to the theaters.” As a student-led organization, Yang shares Doc Films’s aspirations in “providing students the opportunity to see a different movie every day”—up to 850 unique films seen over an undergraduate’s four years at school. 

Sweet Void Cinema hosts workshops alongside free screenings ranging from deep, grisly cuts in the giallo genre to the quiet films of Korean-born director (and School of the Art Institute of Chicago MFA graduate) Hong Sang-soo. By far, though, the most popular screenings are Sweet Void’s monthly shorts fests, which provide an opportunity for filmmakers of any background or experience level to exhibit their work. “There’s a lot happening, and it just really matters for people to come out and experience it,” says Jack McCoy, owner and head director of Sweet Void. “If you don’t, it’s not there—like the tree in the forest.” Those invested in the preservation of cinema, the longevity of the theatrical experience, and the survival of movie theaters echo McCoy’s plea. 

It’s not a dying industry; it’s a changing industry. It’s changed many times over in more than a century since the first moving picture. It’s changed drastically since Netflix was a mail-in DVD service, and even a great deal since we first heard the words “HBO Go.” 

The programmers I spoke to all share a unifying observation: Young people overwhelmingly make up the audiences that have returned to the theaters since COVID-19. It’s an optimistic outlook, but a shift that certainly changes the approach to programming. 

Oestreich notes that young people aren’t just coming back to the Music Box Theatre, but they’re coming back “with more adventurous tastes, not just, you know, ‘Avengers 17.’ You saw that the actual box office started to come back really powered by young people.”

For a chain like Regal Cinemas, programming for art and independent films leaned toward an older audience, resulting in losses since the pandemic. Pennie has worked in the industry for over 40 years, but even with her decades of experience and intuition, Pennie knows this: “You can’t just stick in the past. You can’t just say, ‘This is how I used to do it.’”

Yang says, “If theaters are allowed to go beyond what is simply most profitable and, in doing so, if audiences become more open and used to seeing things they otherwise wouldn’t, that is what will build and excite a moviegoing community.”

For Hancock, moviegoing will never stop being an important part of his life. “I’d rather go see a film in the theater. It’s a different kind of immersive experience to, you know, make an Icee and sit around a bunch of people who are excited to see a film. It’s a whole different kind of being part of humanity, getting to share that space with people.”

Movies have been a human experience for as long as their existence. They’re an escape. They’re a window into other experiences. They’ve provided people comfort through wartime, economic turmoil, or even the moments when one just needs to pass the time. Access to that experience should be available to everyone, and everyone should have the opportunity to support the movies they believe in. Cinema will persist—it always does—but in a world oversaturated with content that supposedly provides us with unlimited options, it must be ensured that everyone does indeed have that choice and that community. 

“As our ecosystem changes, we adapt like a little lizard, you know?” says Fons, face alight with the promise of hope. “We sort of grow a new tail. We figure it out, and figure out what needs to happen so that audiences can see films. I watch a lot of movies on my TV and my couch, too, but ultimately, movie theaters are a place of culture, and they’re a place of learning and expanding attention spans and cultural competencies. To do that with strangers in a dark room? It can’t be replicated anywhere. I think that when people go to the movies, whether for Barbenheimer or for an eight-hour Czech documentary at the Film Center or a Taylor Swift concert, it’s searching for that community.”

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