The Last Picture Show? What the Loss of Local Movie Theaters Means for Communities

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When my wife and I searched for a house more than 20 years ago, we had a few musts. The town had to have great schools. There had to be easy train access to Manhattan. And one more thing.

“I want a movie theater I can walk to,” I said.

I still remembered a picture-palace childhood of kiddie matinees, first dates and high-school hangouts. I wanted our children to have the same memories.

Well, two decades later the schools remain great, and there’s still train access to Manhattan (although how “easy” it is to ride NJ Transit is up for debate). But local movie theaters have become an endangered species.

The Maplewood theater has said it won’t be renewing its lease. The Bow Tie Cinemas in SOPAC have done the same. And while its website calls the closing temporary, Bow Tie’s outpost in Millburn has been dark for months, a sad poster still advertising “Trolls: World Tour.”

There are still movies, of course. Local film buffs can always drive over to the AMC multiplex at West Orange’s Essex Green – even if the offerings aren’t exactly top-shelf these days. (“True to the Game 2”? A re-release of “Die Hard’?)

But it’s not the same — for anyone.

A movie theater anchors a downtown in a way few stores do, offering an entire experience. Maybe you drop by early, get your tickets for the latest Tom Hanks, and then take your spouse to the restaurant around the corner. Maybe after the movie you stop by your favorite coffee shop, to try and hash out how you really felt. It’s a whole evening out.

A local movie theater also winds through a life in a way few other places can. As a child, it’s where you go on with your parents; as a tween, it’s where you go with friends. As a teen, it’s where you first begin to date – or, maybe, explore the world of afterschool jobs. And then, years later, it’s where you take your kids and watch the small-town cycle start all over again.

It’s hard to create the same touchstones in a strip mall.

As a movie critic, I get to see most films early, at private screenings. But I always went to theaters as a paying customer, too, especially with my children, and particularly cherished the pre-movie rituals – the all-important decisions at the candy counter, the hushed expectation as the lights went down, the giddy explosion of coming attractions. Later, my son even worked at the Millburn theater, sweeping the sticky floors, lugging home giant garbage bags of leftover popcorn.

My children and I made memories at our local theaters.

You probably made your own. Maybe you rented out the Millburn theater for a birthday party, and then treated everyone to Håagen-Dazs afterward. Maybe you took your movie-mad teen to the SOMA Film Festival at SOPAC for some quirky indie or cutting-edge doc, and then dropped by Bunny’s afterward to split a pie. Maybe you just cherished the mom-and-pop feel and occasionally eclectic fare of the Maplewood screens.

Those memories remain. But where will the next generation of children make theirs, if these theaters don’t come back? If they get gutted and turned into bank branches, or discount drug stores? What kind of life and color does that bring to our lives? To our downtowns?

Perhaps it’s just another, inevitable chapter in the shrinking of America. We’ve already seen local papers downsized, local stores give way to chains, local luncheonettes replaced by cookie-cutter franchises. Perhaps it’s movie theaters’ turn. Maybe all we have to look forward to now is a drive to some soulless 12-screen out on the highway. And if so, that’d be a blow to our downtowns, and to the old-fashioned movie experience.

But be sure of one thing: Some movie theaters will survive. They have to.

True cinema is a communal experience, and watching a movie at home instead of in a theater is like listening to a group’s CD instead of going to their concert. In your house – in your semi-dark family room, with the dog whining to go out, and the eternal lure of the kitchen – a film is just an entertainment. In a theater – sitting in pitch-blackness, with gasps and laughter all around you, and nothing to distract from that shining silver screen – it’s an event. It’s cathartic. It’s one of the few things left that connects us, as a community.

Of course, we need to support our local theaters, and fight to save the ones we can. But we also need to know that even if those lovely, twinkling, downtown marquees go dark, the magic will always live on, somewhere. Movie theaters are too important to fade out. And however dark it looks, real movie fans are too fond of happy endings to let them.



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