I counted just four people wearing masks in the Massachusetts theater where I saw Tenet, which would have been alarming — except that there were only 14 people in the entire auditorium.
Tenet comes out today, Thursday, but my wife and I took advantage of an early screening open to the general public Monday night, in the Boston suburbs where we’ve quarantined with family for the last six months. After months of watching movies at home, we had a thorough plan for how to see one in a public theater: Sanitize our seats. Eat and drink nothing. Stay masked no matter what.
I think we’re safe. The nearest other people in the audience sat 25 feet away — in an auditorium that could seat about 200.
Our experience seeing Tenet in a theater left me feeling pretty good about the way the Boston area is handling COVID-19, but not as good about the prospects of people returning to movie theaters anytime soon.
Tenet is absolutely spectacular, by the way. Seeing such a good movie on such a huge screen was exhilarating. Our 9 p.m. showing was one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve ever had: The Showcase Cinema de Lux at Legacy Place, in the pleasant suburb of Dedham, pulled out all the stops to make the Tenet fans comfortable.
All 14 of us.
It was a cool, late-summer night. High school kids walked around the shopping center, especially the ice cream shop. School isn’t back in session yet, most offices are closed, and there was nothing to keep people from going to the movies to see one of the most-anticipated movies of the year.
Except: A recent Morning Consult study found that less than one in five Americans would feel comfortable going to the movies now. The comfort level is lower among Democrats, and Massachusetts is one of the most deeply Democratic states.
Believe me, I understand. I don’t want to be one of those cautionary tales you read about on The Drudge Report who make fun of masks one week and end up on a respirator the next. We were determined to be careful.
The Showcase Cinema de Lux met my exacting — my wife might even say paranoid — standards of COVID-19 safety. The snack bar appeared to be closed. Everyone wore masks in the lobby, and the staff wore face shields as well. Prominent signs heralded reduced auditorium capacity, employee temperature checks, new air purification systems, and much more.
I’m sure everyone in the auditorium would have worn masks if we were anywhere near each other.
The Showcase Cinema de Lux, always a terrific theater, seemed to have made some improvements since we last saw a movie there, pre-pandemic. The leather seats reclined. The sound system was great. The Showcase Cinema de Lux didn’t miss a trick.
“Soap in the soap dispenser, towels in the towel dispenser — am I at the Ritz-Carlton?” joked a guy in the men’s room, noting the sad state of most public restrooms.
The way they used to be, I mean.
I wondered: If a movie like Tenet, in a theater as nice as the Showcase Cinema De Lux, only draws 14 people to an early screening, how many people will turn out when it’s released for real?
And what will happen to movies that are nowhere near as hyped as Tenet, or as spectacular?
The whole film industry is wondering. Tenet is the bellwether for theatrical releases. Director Christopher Nolan has made it clear all summer that he wants his film to be the one to pull people back to theaters. It was delayed twice, first from July 17, then from July 31, as film after film delayed their release dates because of coronavirus. Even now, the Sept. 3 Tenet release won’t include Los Angeles and New York, our movie capitals, because of their rigorous coronavirus protocols.
Tenet pulled in a promising $53 million over the weekend, in other countries. My experience in this country is anecdotal.
Maybe people want to wait and see before buying tickets. Maybe people will flock to the film if they read enough articles like this one, saying yes, I felt very safe.
Except: I would never feel comfortable telling anyone else what to do.
Last week, several movie critics refused to review the Disney film The New Mutants because they would have had to go to public theaters to do so, and considered them too much of a health risk. They noted that scientists have expressed concerns about laughing, unmasked patrons and old air-conditioning units that could circulate droplets containing the virus.
I wouldn’t dream of going to a theater in Florida or Arizona or any of the other states with alarming COVID-19 rates. The only reason we even considered going to see Tenet in a theater is that Massachusetts is doing relatively well. And we were fully prepared to turn and exit the auditorium if we saw seats overfilled with mask scofflaws.
I don’t want to ruin anything about the movie for you, by the way, except to say it couldn’t feel more perfectly of our time. Remember when Tom Cruise went to see Tenet in a London theater last week, to gently nudge the rest of us back to going out to movies? How he said “I loved it” as he exited the theater? I totally agree with Tom Cruise.
About Tenet, I mean, not that you should go to theaters. That’s up to you.
This story, originally published early Tuesday, has been updated. Tenet is now playing in selected theaters.