I have a confession to make. Back when I was a youngster, introverted and devoid of much ready cash, the bulk of the movies I saw were on television. Between the advent of cable movie channels and the rise of home video (I’m old and was there for the beginning of both of those, folks), the bulk of my film education took place alone in my room, watching classics and popcorn flicks for hours on end. Yes, I’ve been binge watching since long before it was cool, or even had a name. As a result, I haven’t gone through this pandemic with any aching desire to make my way back to a movie theater, come hell or high water. Live theater, sure, I can’t wait to be in the audience for that again. (I’d rather be on stage performing in it, of course, but first things first.) But when it comes to seeing movies, I’m perfectly happy reverting to my youth, curling up in front of a screen in my room, and letting the story take me somewhere far away from the terrors outside.
Nevertheless, those stories are only going to get told if there’s an industry making that happen, and that industry is in a frighteningly precarious position right now. Actually, it’s two intertwined industries that are in trouble, each one’s fragile health dependent upon the other; the studios creating and distributing the movies, and the theater chains which exhibit them. While the studios have access to their own streaming services to help pick up the slack, their business model is still dependent on those movie theater theaters remaining open and functional, and ten months into the Quarantimes that’s far from being the case.
But fear not! It turns out that help is on the way for at least one of the theater chains that was facing bankruptcy just a few short weeks ago. And as with most things nowadays, that help has taken the form of pranksters on the internet.
By now, you’ve probably heard about GameStop and its stock price – when you’re referenced in the Saturday Night Live cold open, you know you’ve made it. To summarize: various hedge funds had taken note of GameStop’s faltering business and had “shorted” the stock -effectively betting against the business, and positioning themselves to profit from its declining stock price. (It’s complicated. Ask your local economist for the exact details.) Assorted groups of small online investors, making use of such things as the Reddit forum and Robinhood trading app, took note of the hedge fund and started buying large quantities of the GameStop stock to artificially drive up the stock’s price and thwarting the effort to short the stock. The hedge funds have lost billions. Congress is investigating. It’s a whole thing.
While GameStop has been the most heavily publicized case, these so-called Reddit traders have been artificially inflating the value of other distressed companies, notably the AMC theater chain. As a result of their actions, $600 million dollars in company debt was erased. At a moment when any financial drag could spell doom for the company, this bizarre stock saga wound up functioning as a magical rescue package for the industry.
It’s all very strange, in that surreal 2021 sort of way. Bu somehow, this sort of financial chicanery, this rescuing of an industry from the predations of the rich, seems entirely appropriate to the film industry. At least it does to me. Perhaps that’s because the first movie I actually saw in a theater was Disney’s Robin Hood.