Last week, a siren's song came across my email inbox and social media newsfeeds: famed theater chain the Alamo Drafthouse would be re-opening, and, to celebrate, they were going to offer free early screenings of Bill & Ted Face the Music. Free, you say? Well, the price was right, even if I wasn't entirely sure about the safety and ethics of going to a theater in the middle of a pandemic.
But this wasn't just any theater. This was the Alamo Drafthouse– my home away from home! The home of Fantastic Fest! An all-around Austin icon. Surely they, if any, could, would be able to make the theater-going experience as safe as possible. And checking out their website, I have no doubt they are. Knowing the individual theaters like I know my own living room, I could see how they would be providing adequate social distance. They would disinfect the theaters, and everyone would be required to wear a mask. This was, after all, the theater with the strict no-talking, no-texting rules. And any scofflaws who refused to wear a mask I knew would be made to leave. So, knowing it was zero risk, I went ahead and reserved two free tickets to a Wednesday evening preview show.
I was initially very excited. This was the Drafthouse. This was Bill & Ted. I had seen both other films in the theater, and I didn't want to miss out here. Technically, I saw Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey in a most auspicious double feature with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which was my first R-rated movie. It was a momentous occasion, and I'll never forget it. The adventure of Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted "Theodore" Logan are incredibly near and dear to my heart, coming at precisely the right moment in my adolescence. I was really jonesing for this movie. And to see it early? Yes. Please.
I also really wanted to be able to share my experience, positive or negative. Either a cautiously optimistic, "This is a model for how you do it correctly and accept no substitutes" or an "I Went to a Texas Movie Theater, So You Don't Have To" warning. It's a very ethnically vague time when major publications are refusing to review films that aren't available on streaming. Bleeding Cool's Editor in Chief Kaitlyn Booth summed up a lot of my own feelings in her own journey about the ethics of reviewing movies during the pandemic.
But I was also worried. Austin and the surrounding areas are still in the midst of an uncontrolled outbreak of COVID-19. And so I said I would wait and see, and look at the numbers on the day to make a call. What did I want to see? Some epidemiology experts talk about progress, given COVID-19's incubation period is as much as two weeks) being a period of two weeks where the number of cases goes down every day. When I got my free ticket to Bill & Ted, Austin/Travis County was in such a slide.
But just two days prior to the screening, there was a mini-spike. Doing some quick mental math, the number of active cases both in Travis and Hays and Williamson counties (about a 25-mile radius from the theater for those unfamiliar with Central Texas geography) was simply too high. There was a good chance if I went into a theater with 30-40 complete strangers to see Bill & Ted Face the Music, one of them could be sick, and especially a good chance they were sick and didn't know. This was how COVID had spread rapidly right after Memorial Day, as bars and clubs opened, and people packed in, many of them not knowing they were contagious. And a few hundred cases became tens of thousands, and hundreds of people died.
It was just not worth it for a movie. Even as good as Bill & Ted Face the Music was, the risk was too great. And I knew if I went, I would sit there in the dark, breathing heavily into my mask, worried I was going to get sick and not enjoying the movie. I knew I could sit at home in my very comfortable recliner, fix myself my own beverage and food, and not have to wear a mask.
But, oh, how I want to get back to seeing movies in the theaters! For me, it's like church. People come together; it's a communal experience, we laugh, we cry, we jump at the scares, we cheer. It is a holy experience. But it's one we just can't engage in because I can't trust y'all. And y'all shouldn't really trust me.
Tuesday night before the Bill & Ted screening, we also got word that my wife had been exposed by several people in the school where she works. She was getting tested, but we wouldn't know results until later in the week. In the meantime, knowing she had been exposed, and I'd potentially been exposed to her, could I responsibly go into a movie theater?
Now having been cleared, I do have another opportunity to go worship at the altar of cinema, as I've been invited to a critics screening of Tenet. The difference? It will be in a large IMAX theater with a normal capacity of two to three hundred, and there will be roughly a dozen people there– my fellow film critics from the Austin area, no guests, no general public. Not only that, but I know and trust most of these people.
With numbers continuing on a mostly downward trend, and the ability to sit fully 20-30 feet away from them, hopefully, things can be completely safe. I'm not sure the tradeoff of the risk and discomfort will be altogether better than my home theater experience at this point, but at least I'll be able to return and report. . . barring any giant spikes in COVID cases in the next few days.