Skip to main content

A sparse crowd attends a screening at the Queensway Cineplex Cinemas in Toronto on Aug. 18, 2020.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Back when I worked the candy counter at a movie theatre, they taught us a very specific answer to the most commonly asked question.

Don’t say it’s not butter. People don’t want to hear their medium popcorn is slathered in a cocktail of synthetic oils. Tell them instead that it is “topping.” As in, “Would you like topping on that?”

If pressed, call it a “butter substitute.” Do not let the word “margarine” slip your lips. For legal reasons.

If pressed further, begin listing off the ingredients. People don’t like to listen to lists. It’s the most tedious form of lecturing. They will raise a hand and surrender.

The pointlessness of this ritual – “Is it butter? It isn’t? Oh. Well, whatever. I’ll take it anyway” – gave me constant delight. Nearly as much as the people who’d order an extra-large popcorn, a party pack of M&Ms and a Diet Coke.

One persistent shmuck had me fetch out the topping container – an enormous steel drum far easier to roll than lift – and show it to her. She needed to fully comprehend the danger of what she was putting in her body. She still got the topping.

Because that’s what you do at the movies. You eat poorly, drink too much sugar-substitute, need to go to the bathroom in the second act, hold it until something really important is happening in the third, miss the reveal, come back and ask your girlfriend what happened, get “the stare” from the person in front of you, and leave feeling five pounds heavier.

Though we don’t write them down, we all understand the rituals of moviegoing. You typically do it in pairs, but there is a naughty pleasure in doing it alone. You get there early for previews. You sit in the same spot in the theatre (I’m a back-row aficionado). You plant your coat in the seat beside you as a deterrent. You flip through one of those freebie magazines. You turn your phone to silent.

These small gestures are more settled than the stations of the cross.

Then the lights dim and the sound comes up. Is there any more thrilling audio-visual combo in life? Sure, but it’s close.

Moviegoing is the proletarian public cultural experience. Because while we’d all love to check out Hamilton live or get decent seats at the Raptors, who the hell can afford that? So the masses have steered into the movie-theatre experience, hard, for a century. No matter where you fit on the class scale, or how old you are, or where you come from, it is your platonic ideal of a night out.

One of my favourite things to do at the theatre, back when I worked there, was to stand at the front of the auditorium while the film played. To watch hundreds of people awash in blue light, heads uniformly cocked at the same angle, all laughing or crying or flinching at the same moment.

You get none of the blank looks you are used to seeing in the subway or at a doctor’s office. Everyone is especially alive at the movies. Because they are experiencing something alone, but also together. It is a sort of social magic.

This is on my mind because moviegoing took a small hit – or maybe a big one – this past week. Warner Bros. announced it would release its entire 2021 film slate simultaneously in theatres and on HBO Max, its on-the-ropes streaming service.

Heavy-hitting Hollywood types are outraged – outraged, I tell you – that their masterpieces will be subjected to the squalor of the TV screen before they can be imbibed like fine wine on 1,500 square feet of chemically coated vinyl.

“Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service,” said noted scarf-wearer and auteur, Christopher Nolan.

Nolan makes a good point. And the point would be ‘Why aren’t your scripts as snappy as that line?’

Of course, this has less to do with movies than with money. If Warner can’t figure out streaming, it will fade away like the dinosaurs. It’s willing to cannibalize the back-end profit participation of its own famous freelancers in order to get there. This is rich people arguing over points on the package.

But waaaay down the Hollywood food-chain, right at the very end of it, there’s all of us.

It is not hard to imagine a knock-on effect of this decision that, if not wiping out movie theatres, might vastly reduce their numbers. Especially in places that are not urban centres.

Why would a suburban family schlep out to a strip mall in the sticks to see Avengers: Hand to God, This is the Very Last One, when they can do it at home for half the cost? This is exactly why they bought a flatscreen the size of a refrigerator turned on its side. Give them that option, and many will take it.

The marketplace will win out in the end, always. If people want to watch the next Lawrence of Arabia on their laptop, then who am I to tell them no?

But what is being lost here is not what the Nolans of the world are worried about. It isn’t the majesty of the big screen and a Dolby-compliant sound system. It’s the magic of each other. It’s sitting in the dark with strangers. It’s first dates, last dates and the same date night the pair of you have been doing for years. It’s the last place all of us – just about every single one of us – knows we can go for a good time.

Going to the theatre is butter. Experiencing a motion picture any other way is topping. Same taste. Nowhere close to the same thing.

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today.