My last movie was Cats.
It was late 2019 and COVID was barely on anyone’s radar in the US. My partner and I went to see what we hoped would be a fiasco-film at the AMC downtown; we found ourselves in a theater with maybe, if I’m being generous, twenty other people in the entire room. (Two of them left when Jennifer Hudson showed up. You stayed THAT long, but "Memory" was your dealbreaker???)
Despite the sparse crowd, it was one of the most joyous experiences I’ve ever had at a movie screening. We shrieked, we sang along, we gasped when Judy Dench noticed us.
I don’t know anything about the other people in the theater, other than that the lesbians in front of us were extremely excited when Taylor Swift showed up. But we shared something, strangers together in the dark, and when we exited the theater we were united like we’d just emerged from the ship at the end of The Poseidon Adventure.
I missed a lot of things over the last year, but that Cats screening sticks with me with particular intensity. Movie screenings are such a singular experience — a crowd of people transported into the imaginary world of a film while engaged in a sort of group conversation of laughs and gasps.
Before the pandemic, I hosted small nerdy movie nights at Verne & Welles, a geek social club in Kirkland. Once a month we’d gather for free screenings, open to all, and in that small space with a dozen or so folks, we’d chatter our way through Princess Mononoke, or Scott Pilgrim, or Who Framed Roger Rabbit. One of my fondest memories was the glee with which we all devoured Labyrinth together, with a pre-show of obscure Henson and Bowie clips.
I miss it so much.
“I don’t think before March of last year I had ever been on a Zoom meeting,” says Kasi Gaarenstroom, who coordinates movie events at MoPOP. Over the last week, I’ve called around to various movie-night organizers to commiserate about the year of canceled and retrofitted screenings. MoPOP’s movie nights were a thing of wonder (and hopefully will be again very soon), with a Campout Cinema series that invited guests to make themselves comfortable on the floor of a massive auditorium.
Kasi and her colleagues would program special activities to accompany the museum's screenings — a toy car race when they showed Mad Max, for example, and an escape room to accompany The Matrix. Once the pandemic forced us indoors, MoPOP quickly realized that movie screenings conducted over video calls couldn’t replicate the in-person experience, especially when everyone could talk at once.
“Very early we realized Zoom is not a place where we want to try to unmute everyone,” she says. “It felt really hard at first.”
Isabella Price, host of the Nocturnal Emissions horror series at Northwest Film Forum, experienced a similar frustration. Her shows featured a burlesque element, with each film preceded by an elaborate floor show of strip-teases and audience-involved party games.
It’s the manic energy that made a Nocturnal Emissions screening, and that was impossible to replicate over video call. At one pre-pandemic screening I attended, audience members were pulled up and made to answer movie trivia questions … while wearing dental lip-spreaders. Isabella shouted questions at them as they drooled uncontrollably.
“In the early part of the quarantine we tried to do virtual screenings and it was okay,” she says.
“But,” heavy sigh, “it just didn’t make sense for virtual. It wasn’t a show that fit — it’s best when you can experience it all live.”
JP Sugarbroad, who helps run Verne & Wells, spent the early days of the pandemic trying to figure out how to translate the in-person club into an online experience. Verne & Wells is a multi-room geek haven with a massive collection of board games, fantasy novels, game consoles, and snacks. But without members able to access those physical items, he wondered, what was left?
“The core, the essential of the thing,” he said, “is the community we had built, the culture we had built.” After the initial shock of everyone confined to quarters, that culture began to re-emerge on the club’s now-thriving Discord server.
Kasi gradually found a way to create a new social screening experience as well.
“It started with the ‘It’s Coming From Inside the House’ watch-along series,” she said. “We figured horror was a good outlet, because horror is kind of a catharsis, and a good outlet for emotions.”
They organized a Zoom call for viewers, but crucially, didn’t expect everyone to stare into a camera for the entire experience. Instead, they began the event with a quick welcome message, then switched the cameras off and instructed everyone to hit play on their copies of the movie all at once. Then, once everyone had finished watching, more or less in synchronicity, they returned to a video call to chat. By the time I joined them, as a guest speaker for a Hairspray screening, they’d hit their stride.
“People wanted to find a community of people to geek out with on their favorite films,” Kasi says. They also took a nod from Hecklevision at Central Cinema, where viewers can text a number and their comment can appear on the screen. “There’s something in the opportunity to send a one-liner,” she says. “Like, you come up with a great comment about Nicholas Cage’s mullet in Con Air and everyone busts up, that feels good.”
Now that vaccines are rolling out and an end to quarantine is on the horizon, organizers look forward to getting back to … well, not normal, exactly.
“We all want to get back, but it’s like, do you? Do you really?” says Isabella. “Do you want to be in a theater packed full of strangers again? I don’t know what I’m going to do if I’m in a movie theater and somebody sneezes.”
It’s a question I hadn’t considered. I’ve been missing that feeling from Cats for over a year now — so desperate to feel the familiar old camaraderie that I haven’t stopped to consider what else I might feel when we can finally gather again. Will I be able to sing along to "Magical Mister Mistoffelees" when I’m also thinking about how nobody’s wearing masks, nobody’s six feet apart, I don’t know when the seats were wiped down, the air conditioning might be recirculating germs...
“It’s going to be weird, honestly,” says JP. “One thing my therapist told me is we’re probably never going back to how it was before. We’re going to re-enter a phase of trying to understand what our community needs.”
“It’ll feel different,” Kasi says. She’s currently planning, with her fingers crossed, for in-person screenings to resume this fall. “I don’t know what I’m going to do when I’m in a room of more than twenty people. It’s going to be difficult.”
But, she says, she’s learned a lot about how to improve the screenings that they were doing before. MoPOP hopes to incorporate elements of the virtual watch-alongs into the in-person versions, with guests and viewers calling in from remote locations.
“It’s all about the hybridization of the formats that have worked really well and that we’ve mastered over the last year,” she says.
“It’s going to be amazing,” says David Stansel-Gardner, one of the Verne & Wells founders. He’s looking forward to the club’s biggest annual events — orphan Thanksgiving and Christmas, when members who have no family nearby keep each other company. “Coming out of this pandemic, people are going to get a realization of how much socialization means to them.”
When he mentions those parties, I feel a pang in my heart. Years ago, when I was new to Seattle, it was a Thanksgiving at Verne & Wells that helped me feel like I’d picked the right city to move to. I brought a basket full of rolls and helped carve the turkey before we all sat down to watch episodes of Bob Ross, followed by Addams Family Values — the most important Thanksgiving film ever made.
I know we’ll go back to those days. Maybe even something better. Soon, I tell myself, soon.
When I reached Isabella to chat, she was a little tired, having just helped her neighbor move — one more Seattleite leaving town in the waning days of the pandemic.
“There’s an opportunity to make something better out of the rubble and chaos,” she says. “That’s what I hope happens once we catch our breath. I just don’t know when that comes.”