Movie Theaters, America’s One True Place of Worship

Pop Culture

“Television will kill the movies!” That’s what Hollywood was afraid of in the 50s. That’s when wide screen “epic” film formats were developed and movies like Cleopatra and Ben Hur came to represent the movies. The idea was that filmmakers had to come up with something that would clearly draw audiences away from television otherwise no one would ever again leave the comfort of their homes.


The ensuing years have proven that movies were more resilient than that. Several factors have contributed, not the least being the intelligence of the audience. People get the notion of a “night out” or “going to the movies.” In American popular culture there are few things so intrinsically appealing.

Great stories, wonderful scripts, compelling actors and a whole bunch of other contributions have made movies consistently attractive entertainment options. The 60s introduced a new realism to movies. The 70s gave us the downer ending. The 80s saw computer technology start to change everything. The 90s brought us remakes and huge box office weekends, and now we have Imax.

At the same time the VCR made its appearance, Beta lost to VHS, Laserdiscs tried and then handed over the baton to DVDs and large, flat-screen TVs truly brought the “home theater” home.

All of which has kept the fear alive, that television will eventually kill movies and movie theaters.

But there’s a whole other factor that has lived at the heart of the attraction that movies have that Hollywood has never identified. Hollywood has stumbled around it, spending millions of dollars on it, sort of. But it’s never been able to put a finger on it. Spending money on making a good-looking picture, at a certain level, has been a default for movie studios. Just think about filmmakers who have chosen to shoot in black and white incurring the wrath or the befuddlement of their producer who had budgeted for color.

Stories fundamentally are about human beings undergoing profound transformations. But what are movie theaters about?


Think about it. What happens when you get a hundred people together in a dark room staring at a bright light for 2 hours plus? What are all of these people fundamentally doing?

Conventional wisdom assumes that worship requires God and some form of humble obeisance. But maybe that’s truer of dogma and less so of spirituality. And isn’t God in the very least represented by a very bright light, the brightest in fact? In the least, worship seems to be a kind of acknowledgment of something greater than oneself. To a great degree worship seems to be about opening up to something else.

The intensely personal lessons learned and the transformations experienced by the central characters in all of these movies are also shared by every member of the audience. Despite the size of the crowd and the apparently public nature of moviegoing, counter-intuitively the result is an intimate, personal experience.

How is it that so many people can have an intimate experience in the middle of a crowd?

Whichever movie people are watching, they are staring at or opening themselves up to a bright source of light. For approximately two hours moviegoers are enlightening themselves; no pun intended at all. And in the best moviegoing experiences, they know it. The best movies leave you changed. The Exorcist scared the bejesus out of you. Jaws chased you out of the water. The Sound of Music made you want to solve a problem like Maria and Titanic made you care for 1,500 people…while spending $1.8 billion worldwide on the experience.

Spirituality, if not religion, indeed is a natural component of the human species. The knowledge that there are things greater than us out there and the suspicion that acknowledging those things may be wise have been with us ever since we became conscious of our place in the universe.

Movies and movie theaters undoubtedly will change, but I strongly doubt that they will die or disappear. First-run movies may find themselves premiering on the internet, thanks to new and improved digital signals, increased bandwidth and gorgeous flat screen displays. But the movie theater I believe will prevail for the simple fact that while worship — taking the time to acknowledge that which is greater than us and attempting to be in harmony with that — may seem to be an exclusively intimate or personal experience is also a strongly communal one and it reinforces our humanity when we experience some form of it together.

Which perhaps makes movie theaters the only churches where you can find Americans, and people around the world, of all religious beliefs, ethnic backgrounds, and social classes together sharing a common experience.

That kind of profound phenomenon tends to stick around.