Arts & Culture News

Why Movie Theater Marquees These Days Look a Lot Like 1985

Have we hit 88 mph in a DeLorean? Movie marquees these days seem eerily familiar.
Have we hit 88 mph in a DeLorean? Movie marquees these days seem eerily familiar. Ilya S. Savenok/Getty
A moviegoer who checks the digital signage at their local theater and sees showtimes for The Breakfast Club, The Goonies and Back to the Future may believe that they actually took a trip in Doc Brown’s DeLorean. Why, they may wonder, are three of the biggest films of 1985 making the theatrical rounds once again?

Movie theaters are open. After months of closures, major theater chains like AMC, Cinemark and Alamo Drafthouse have all opened their doors once again to moviegoers, and have implemented new safety procedures, including blocking out seats to maintain social distancing and requiring masks. Much of the minutia is still being worked out, as it’s unclear how viewers can wear masks and shove popcorn in their faces at the same time.

As much as theaters are pushing the narrative of a “new normal,” the rest of the industry is still catching up, and as a result the new slate of releases is a strange one. Some films like Bill & Ted Face The Music and The Rental debuted simultaneously in theaters and on VOD platforms. Other films have taken advantage of the barren market; a film like the delayed X-Men spinoff The New Mutants (which has been pushed back multiple times since its initial release date of April 2018) or the maligned Russell Crowe vehicle Unhinged seem like strange picks to relaunch the theatrical experience.

With the exception of Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending blockbuster Tenet, studios have been largely hesitant to put out their major tentpole releases, with films like Top Gun: Maverick, The French Dispatch, In the Heights, and Last Night in Soho all making the jump to 2021. The earliest signs of a legitimate movie season won’t be found until October when blockbusters like Wonder Woman 1984, Candyman and Death on the Nile are set for tentative releases.

The reasoning is simple; audiences are still getting used to the concept of returning to a dark and crowded theater, so as studios weigh the chances of releasing their films, theaters have turned to classic films as a means of coaxing hesitant viewers back into their seats. Sure, an average film fan may be hesitant about returning to theaters for a critically panned X-Men spinoff or a cheesy Russell Crowe pseudo-thriller, but a beloved classic like Ghostbusters or Jurassic Park may be much more appealing.

In a time as unprecedented as that of today's pandemic, theaters are betting on a service that is becoming increasingly hard to provide: escapism.

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There are now more opportunities than ever to watch movies at home thanks to an increasing number of streaming services and on-demand platforms, so to convince audiences of their merit, theaters are selecting films that absolutely require the most immersive experience possible — be it the ominous John Williams score of Jaws, the lightsaber spectacle of The Empire Strikes Back or the thunderous voice of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Theaters have curated a selection of films that benefit from big screens with overbearing surround sound.

With films like The Goonies or Gremlins making their way back to multiplexes, it’s clear what types of experiences theaters are looking to promote; exciting, four-quadrant adventures that will both hit a nostalgia bone and encourage families to take the time to come back to the theater. Not only are these films ones that are intended to reach the largest possible audience, but they are intended to bring back the social quality of moviegoing.

Part of the fun of seeing these classics make their return is parents passing them on to their children (especially the way we watched them originally, at theaters), and for audiences who’ve seen them countless times, hearing familiar lines is a form of comfort. Take the Texas-based chain Alamo Drafthouse for example, which brought back crowd-pleasers Scream, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Mad Max: Fury Road.

In a time as unprecedented as today's pandemic, theaters are betting on a service that is becoming increasingly hard to provide: escapism. You may notice there hasn’t been a re-release of Schindler’s List or The Elephant Man, no matter how essential their viewing. With so much political divisiveness and scary rhetoric, it’s no wonder that the films returning to prominence tend to be on the lighter and more hopeful side. It’s almost impossible to finish watching The Goonies without a smile, and right now that’s what audiences really need.

This doesn’t mean that theaters are ignoring the world around them, as an archive of classic films releases have come as a response to current news stories. Following the death of actor Chadwick Boseman in August, theater chains launched a re-release of 2013’s 42, in which Boseman portrayed Jackie Robinson. 42 hits a lot of the same checkmarks of the other classics making their return, in that it’s a fast-paced, exciting and inspirational story, but it’s also a film that provides an important message given the state of the world.

It’s unclear if movies will ever be the same again; the prospect of a world in which a majority of releases head to home viewing platforms instead of theaters has been a talking point for years, and the nationwide theater shutdown only amplified those concerns. As these questions are considered, theaters are aiming to remind us of the reason we fell in love with them, and at the very least, go out on a high note.
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.