I’m afraid to go to the movies.
It’s a double whammy for me, since I pride myself on being a tough New Yorker and because I produce movies for a living. I grew up braving a pre-Disney Times Square, when its inhabitants were decidedly less PG than Snow White. New Yorkers think we have a sixth sense about our surroundings; when we get on a subway or cross a street, we’re hyperattuned to what’s going on around us. It serves us well in our home city, but perhaps gives us an unwanted air of paranoia and aggressiveness in, say, Hailey, Idaho. When terrorists did the unimaginable just a few blocks from my Tribeca office nearly 11 years ago, I swore—like many others—that it wouldn’t prevent me from flying or continuing to live in this great city.
This is different.
What those of us in the entertainment business had privately feared would happen for years—through changing technology and shifting sociological patterns—one lunatic in Aurora, Colo., managed to do through violence.
Movies had always been a communal event for me. My earliest memories of classic cinema are going to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Back to the Future with my friends. In those quaint days, a new movie came out every few weeks, so the choices were much more limited. No VOD or Netflix or Hulu; it’s possible we took a horse and buggy to the theater, though I’m pretty sure the movies were in color.
Then home theaters took off and suddenly everyone had huge screens at home. I remember a friend showing off his obscenely large new flat screen and a collection of DVDs, proudly proclaiming, “I’ll never have to go to the theater again!”
The film industry panicked. Was this the end of moviegoing as we knew it?
Along came handheld devices. Screens suddenly got smaller and people watched music videos, YouTube, and all manner of developing content on tiny screens. I sat next to a woman on a plane as she watched a movie I had spent two years making. I’m not sure why I’d bothered hiring a top cinematographer and sound designer since she was watching it on a 10-inch iPad screen and listening on her $9 Radio Shack headphones. Here at 35,000 feet, was this finally the end of the audience-theater experience?
And yet nothing stopped it. Whether it was the adrenaline rush of an Avengers, the zeitgeist of The Hunger Games, or the raucous laughter of Ted, sitting in a packed theater experiencing something wonderful with hundreds of strangers was still the preferred way to watch films all over the world. Overall box office was up, and though new forms of distribution were appearing everywhere, movie theaters were alive and well.
A man in a crowded Colorado movie theater randomly executing a roomful of total strangers including women and children? This, to me, is literally the definition of incomprehensible. A month after that horrific night, 20 percent of the moviegoing audience is still fearful about returning to theaters, according to the research firm NRG. Sadly I’m no exception. I live within a few blocks of three great theaters in my New York neighborhood, but can’t bring myself to do what I’ve always loved.
On a recent Saturday night, I went to a particularly popular multiplex to see The Watch (big Jonah Hill fan), but as I waited in the long line amid the usual chaos of a typical raucous New York Saturday night, I began to feel uneasy. There were a lot of odd-looking people—loners, hostile energy, pushing and shoving—was this the usual New York crowd? Or something more sinister? It was hard to remember what it felt like before July 20. Now I notice everything, completely missing the point of the event in the first place. Where once there was expectation, thrills, and joy, there is now uncertainty, dread, and fear.
Is the violence of The Expendables 2 too cartoonish to get someone amped up? Even the audience for Ice Age now seems ominous, with all the kids running up and down the aisles. I know there are psychopaths in every walk of life, and there’s no logic to what I’m feeling. I remember back when airplanes felt safe until that was taken away from us. Are movies the new planes? Teens texting, audiences talking back to the screen, people eating loudly—it all seemed like harmless fun in the past, part of the strange and wonderful shared experience of going to the movies with a roomful of complete strangers.
No more. I left the multiplex before buying my ticket and haven’t been to a movie since. I know it makes no sense and is cowardly. I grew up going to the theater, make my living creating movies for audiences, and wondered for years if that experience would be sustained. My confidence is now forever and irreparably shaken for reasons I never could have fathomed.