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2020 was a bad year for moviegoing, but maybe a great turning point for movies

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In the last days of November, a debate raged over Twitter about a movie hardly anyone was talking about just days before, and whether one of its characters deserved the happy ending she got. In Happiest Season, Harper (Mackenzie Davis) asks her girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) to hide the nature of their relationship while visiting Harper’s old-fashioned, politically ambitious family for Christmas.

Harper then spends much of the film leaning into the lie, frequently sidelining Abby while spending time with her ex-boyfriend Connor (Jake McDormand), leaving Abby to strike up a friendship with another of Harper’s exes, Riley (Aubrey Plaza). The film divided viewers into factions of #TeamHarper and #TeamRiley. While the discussion never became as heated as, say, arguments over what was up with the spinning top at the end of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, it still helped make Happiest Season the movie of the moment over Thanksgiving weekend.

It’s hard to imagine that happening just a year ago. Happiest Season deserves the attention: Directed and co-written by Clea Duvall, it charmingly repurposes elements from old-fashioned holiday rom-coms to tell a story featuring characters who never had a place in holiday rom-coms of old. In another year, its theatrical release probably would have been overwhelmed by bigger, action-filled films with crushing marketing budgets. Instead, it slipped onto Hulu with a push from some targeted online promotion, and became the movie seemingly everyone was talking about for a while.

Photo: Lacey Terrell / Hulu

The coronavirus pandemic reshaped seemingly every aspect of life in 2020, including moviegoing habits. Even the word “moviegoing” barely applies to a year that saw American theaters shut down in March, their Bloodshot posters still crisp in their display cases months later. Theaters still haven’t fully reopened on a national scale. The eventual release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet after a series of changing release dates seemed to mark a moment when theatrical movies could mount a comeback. But COVID-19 returned with them. Tenet was eventually released in September, but normality remained nowhere to be seen.

The habit of moviegoing faces an uncertain future. In time, movie theaters will reopen nationwide, but they’ll do so in a changed environment, where major studios appear more heavily invested than ever in streaming. Currently, opening movies in theaters is just one option among several, when it’s an option at all. No development has underscored this more than Warner Bros.’ recent surprise decision to release all its 2021 releases simultaneously to theaters and its struggling streaming service HBO Max, just as it previously announced it would do with the Christmas Day release of Wonder Woman 1984.

Though Warner has stated this will be a one-year-only strategy designed to address the uncertainty of 2021 and the still-out-of-control pandemic, it’s hard to imagine the company abandoning the plan if it proves successful. If, say, the cost-benefit balance in releasing Godzilla vs. Kong to HBO Max and theaters winds up being equal to or better than the old way of doing things, it’s hard not to imagine others following this example. Disney’s recent mega-announcement doesn’t bode well for the primacy of theaters, for instance, given its emphasis on new streaming content. There’s certainly been pushback from talent and production companies, but it remains to be seen whether that will prove too weighty a counterbalance for the strategy in the long term.

2020 will be seen as a pivotal year for movies, but a pivot to what? For those who still treasure movie outings, it could be a shift toward a grim tomorrow in which seeing a movie in the remaining theaters will be the moviegoing equivalent of paying a healthy hunk of change to buy new music on 180-gram vinyl, rather than just clicking play on Spotify. You could go see Dune with a crowd and watch it on a big screen in a theater blaring the soundtrack on state-of-the-art equipment, but who has the energy? And sure, theater popcorn is the best, but microwave popcorn will do.

Characters run from an exploding building in Tenet

Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon / Warner Bros.

The shift away from theater viewing would undoubtedly change what we watch as well. The divide between the multiplex that increasingly plays only the biggest blockbusters and the arthouse that caters to specialty audiences in smaller venues might deepen. In this scenario, arthouses that make it to the other side of the health crisis seem better positioned to resume business as usual than multiplexes, which would be more dependent than ever on drawing in viewers with big-screen spectacle and the promise of the sort of experience you can’t get at home. But even arthouse devotees may lose the habit, and blockbuster enthusiasts might decide that their 80-inch 4K TV is big enough.

But there are at least some reasons for cautious optimism about the long-term effects of this unusual year, one in which the Marvel Cinematic Universe went on hiatus, and the new Wonder Woman became an unexpected stocking-stuffer. With virtually no blockbusters to talk about, we’ve had to focus our attention elsewhere.

Unlike past Nolan films, Tenet became the antithesis of an American event movie. Its tightly guarded secrets, when finally revealed (something to do with time travel?), started virtually no conversations. The films that felt like events this year — regardless of how many people watched them, or whether they wound up on box-office top-10 lists — looked nothing like traditional blockbusters. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods found the director exploring the experiences of Black soldiers in Vietnam and the ways the legacy of that war still shapes contemporary politics. Palm Springs drew on Groundhog Day for a romantic comedy, of sorts, that mixed heady observations with silly gags. Hamilton brought Lin-Manuel Miranda’s landmark musical to audiences that never got a chance to see it on Broadway. David Byrne’s American Utopia did the same for a remarkable musical residency. Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson is Dead, an unusual exploration of mortality and dementia, found a spotlight on Netflix that it might not have found in theaters. With Small Axe, Steve McQueen delivered five remarkable features about growing up Black in the England of the recent past.

A large group of Black protestors carry a Black Panther banner in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series movie Mangrove

Photo: Amazon Studios

And with the field cleared of franchises, other types of films found room to breathe. Instead of Scorsese vs. superheroes, we had Harper vs. Riley. (#TeamRiley, by the way, but Harper losing the love of her life by reverting to old habits in her parents’ presence might have been too harsh a punishment.)

Moviegoers picking up a taste for a wider array of movies is one cause for guarded hopefulness. The idea that such habits might spill into theaters when they reopen is another. It’s possible theaters will resume their accelerated process of withering away in favor of home viewing. But the opposite is also possible. Maybe throngs of movie fans starved for the theatrical experience — or those who just want to get out of the damn house at last — will pack theaters of all sizes once their doors open and the flow of new movies resumes in earnest. It’s also possible that they’ll want more from movies after a year of exploring options beyond the usual blockbuster fare, and that venues will fill with films of a wider variety than mainstream theaters have seen in years.

Or maybe in 2021 we’ll all just stay home to watch Godzilla fight King Kong between rounds of Among Us. But who wants to live in a future that grim?

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