Close Encounters: In-Between Screens and the Materialities of COVID-era Exhibition

A large inflatable screen shows The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) against the side of a diner in Queens. Hannah Goldfield, “Tables for Two: A Diner Turned Drive-In in Queens,” The New Yorker, May 29, 2020, 11, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/08/a-diner-turned-drive-in-in-queens. Photo Credit: Jerome Strauss /The New Yorker
DIY film exhibition proliferated during the Covid-19 pandemic. Andrea Kelley examines how makeshift screens and alternative viewing practices reveal the underlying materiality of moviegoing.
[This article is part of a dossier on Media In-Between.]
“Thus, the object that rises between spectator and screen is at once a reminder of film’s allegiance to materiality and its ephemerality” (Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece and Stephen Groening)1Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece and Stephen Groening, “Afterword: Objects in the Theater,” Film History 28, no. 3, Objects, Exhibition, and the Spectator (2016): 141, https://doi.org/10.2979/filmhistory.28.3.07.

When movie theaters closed during the COVID-19 pandemic in Spring 2020, it seemed at first that our cinema screens had moved indoors to the privacy of our homes, with Hollywood begrudgingly releasing even more films directly to streaming. After a few months of screening indoors, the desire for shared viewings led to creative configurations of collective viewings. Whether in backyards, parking lots, or rooftops, viewers found ways to expand their social bubbles by moving cinema outdoors into safer climes. A central to these al fresco viewing parties was often a makeshift screen. Often using a bedsheet or a larger inflatable screen, these DIY exhibition practices created a new kind of screen engagement, where viewers were asked to encounter the screen and its surround as a series of physical, material objects, and not as a given within the movie theater. Outside of both the movie theater and the home, the Covid-era exhibitor (and I use this term broadly) creatively constructed screening sites, rethinking which materials and objects would be adaptable and suitable for safe, open-air projection and viewing.

An outdoor movie screening during COVID-19. Nick Vadala, “How to set up an outdoor home movie theater,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 30, 2020, https://www.inquirer.com/philly-tips/outdoor-movie-screen-backyard-20200630.html. Photo Credit: Miodrag Gajic / Getty Images

These more recent COVID-era encounters with makeshift screening practices invite a reconsideration of the materiality of moviegoing and foreground, as Haidee Wasson states in Everyday Movies, the “negotiated materialities of showing movies.”2Haidee Wasson, Everyday Movies: Portable Film Projectors and the Transformation of American Culture (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2020), 179. To this end, this dossier’s theme of “media in-between” offers a useful framework to highlight more recent encounters with the materialities of contemporary film exhibition and spectatorship. Although some of these in-between practices more broadly apply to contemporary media exhibition in the digital age, the COVID-19 moment offers its own marker of the in-between—a pandemic era that interrupted and reorganized our relationships to time and space, creating a pause and often a sense of suspension to our everyday lived realities and routines. Using the liminality of this moment, we can explore how the in-between foregrounds latent issues of moviegoing and its always shifting material practices. Focusing on screening practices in the US between early summer 2020 to fall 2021, I briefly examine three aspects of COVID-era moviegoing: in-between exhibition spaces, in-between screen materials, and in-between spectatorship practices.

In-Between Exhibition Spaces

One of the primary ways COVID-19 reconfigured the materialities of moviegoing was by necessitating different spaces to watch movies. While there is a much longer and larger history of film viewing beyond the conventional movie theater, many COVID screenings were specifically framed as a substitute for the theatrical experience. Similar to supplanting evenings in bars and restaurants with walks in parks or street-side dining, the desire for social screen time often relocated to outdoor spaces. While some accounts called this as a return to the drive-in era, most of these in-between exhibitions were framed as temporary, pop-up events promising a momentary reprieve from the isolation of the pandemic. In the summer of 2020, improvised outdoor movie nights became commonplace. Such experiences were typified in stories like “Tables for Two: A Diner Turned Drive-In in Queens,” which ran in The New Yorker.3Hannah Goldfield, “Tables for Two: A Diner Turned Drive-In in Queens,” The New Yorker, May 29, 2020, 11, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/08/a-diner-turned-drive-in-in-queens. As part of that summer’s pandemic coverage, the piece recounts how the Bel Aire Diner started showing movies in its parking lot to generate lost revenue from in-person dining. Largely screening cult classics or recent family films, the Bel Aire Diner (with its midcentury design) surely evoked a nostalgic drive-in set-up with diners ordering movie-themed snacks from the inside of their cars. While the drive-in format is not new to the history of movie exhibition, this temporary repurposing of a parking lot in Astoria, Queens to a makeshift screening site illustrates an in-between practice in film display, pointing to an overarching desire for collective screenings in public places while viewers are kept safe within the interior of their cars (another in-between space). It also brings new materialities to the screen surround, whether that be the themed concessions for that night’s screening or the personal effects that may be in one’s car, like a blanket or dashboard accessory, now being incorporated into the screening experience.

As a pandemic-era preoccupation akin to breadmaking, improvised, DIY movie nights extended beyond the city to the suburbs, turning private homeowners into their own kind of outdoor exhibitors. Giant corporations like Amazon and small equipment rental companies alike targeted homeowners and small businesses to host movie nights during the pandemic. For example, an Amazon Prime ad on Instagram advertising a “movie night in a box” shows a couple unboxing a projector, string lights, speaker, sheet, and cozy blanket and then watching a screen on the side of their van. The intended consumer-exhibitor is presented with various material objects, all with the aim of constructing alternate spaces for viewing with little attention given to the programming content; here, the objects matter more. While some of these items are essential to the cinematic apparatus, the inclusion of string lights and cozy blankets ushers new materials and commodities into the screening surround. While these practices might feel mundane, such COVID-era screenings point to other spaces for the display of movies. While contemporary discourse on digital streaming is quick to locate the home as the primary locus for viewing and place it in direct opposition to movie theaters, these in-between screening spaces offer a more nuanced picture of how, where and why we engage with movies.

Above: An Instagram Reel showing the unboxing of the materials for a DIY movie night.

In-Between Screen Materials

Just as pandemic movie nights opened new spaces for collective viewing, they also invited encounters with different kinds of screen materials. Without the luxury of the large ‘silver’ screen at the theater, in-between exhibitors made their own screens, purchased them on-line, or would forego a screen altogether and project images against walls and buildings. In videos produced for HGTV and multiple DIY YouTube tutorials, homeowners were urged to create “backyard movie nights” by repurposing on-hand materials like a bedsheet that could be used as a screen. While a simple white sheet has been utilized as a projection surface since the earliest days of cinema, its integration into these COVID movie nights encouraged contemporary viewers to transform a domestic material into something (somewhat) theatrical.4For more on the bedsheet as an early screen material, see Andrea Kelley, “Bedsheet Cinema: The Materiality of the Segregating Screen,” Film History: An International Journal 31, no. 3 (2019): 1–26, https://doi.org/10.2979/filmhistory.31.3.01. During this in-between moment, the bedsheet as a media material became sutured into highly aestheticized (and often very middle-class) surrounds eager to elevate outdoor spaces. This included integrating homey comforts of blankets and throw pillows into elaborate backyard spaces replete with mood-enhancing string lights, and a large chalk board advertising available “concessions.” In the backyard cinema, the bedsheet screen strung from a clothesline quaintly emulates the big screen while integrating well with the blankets on the ground to create a cohesive, atmospheric screening space.

Boasting “a fun and easy way to create your own blockbuster event,” a homemaker’s blog offers instructions for hosting a backyard movie night. Leanna Laming, “Backyard Movie Night Home for the Summer,” Life by Leanna (Personal Blog), July 23, 2020, https://lifebyleanna.com/backyard-movie-night-at-home-for-summer/

During the summer 2020 “boom” in “backyard movie theaters,” many purchased (or rented) large inflatable screens to replicate theatrical screens with their large dimensions and dark borders.5Jeanette Settembre, “Back Yard Movie Theaters Boom in Coronavirus,” Fox Business, July 28, 2020, https://www.foxbusiness.com/lifestyle/with-movie-theaters-closed-during-coronavirus-backyard-screening-up. Sold alongside other inflatable plastics like bounce houses, plastic pools, and pop-up lawn ornaments, the inflatable screen became a popular consumer object of the pandemic that boasted efficient set-up, lightweight materials, and the ability to create a pop-up cinema experience. The incorporation of inflatable screens into outdoor events flourished during the pandemic, and yet these mundane “in-between” screening practices are so small-scale and seemingly mundane that the uptick in their usage often goes overlooked. These COVID-era movie exhibitors utilized inflatable screens for their portability and durability and often paired them with bounce house rentals to complete the inflatable environment.6For a great example of the entrepreneurial spirt behind small-scale pop-up cinemas, see The Money Etiquette Group LLC, “Starting a Backyard Movie Business During a Pandemic Ep. 11,” YouTube, July 13, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HM2SzLXF08Q&t=448s. The particular interest in pneumatic materials for these backyard cinemas point beyond consumer convenience to a larger COVID-era preoccupation with air-based material objects that echoed and extended collective desires to control or contain air through masks and ventilation or to turn to the open air for greater freedom.

These “in-between” screen materials more generally show how we derive meaning from the objects in our screening surround. While these DIY exhibitors often used what was on-hand, convenient and affordable for their outdoor movie nights, these alternate, outdoor screenings also resituated viewers in new materialities of movie viewing. Both the bedsheet, with its material ties to domesticity, and the inflatable screen, with its pop-up convenience, evidence a desire to integrate the screen materials into the larger surround, so that the screen acts as an extension of the environment, or, at the least, provides a cohesion between screen and space. As temporary stand-ins for theatrical moviegoing, the integration of screen materials within these constructed screening surrounds also evidences a desire for more immersive viewing experiences, even if outdoors.

Above: Among the many small businesses launched during the summer of 2020, Baltimore-area entrepreneur and YouTuber Joseph Lorick (and his aptly entitled YouTube series “Starting a Backyard Movie Business during a Pandemic”) foregrounds inflatables as essential to his business’ success during COVID-19. 

In-Between Spectatorship

With the reopening of most major movie theaters by late summer 2020, moviegoers were met with emphatic appeals from commercial exhibitors to celebrate the return to cinemas.7The reopening of movie theaters varied widely across the US depending on state-level COVID regulations. While many US theaters opened across the South by August 2020, theaters in larger metropolitan areas like New York and LA delayed reopening until March 2021. According to Kate Fortmueller, “65% of the world’s theaters” were opened by Labor Day weekend 2020. See Kate Fortmueller, Hollywood Shutdown: Production, Distribution, and Exhibition in the Time of COVID (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021), 90. As part of this push to see films theatrically, AMC released its $25 million “We Make Movies Better” ad starring Nicole Kidman in 2021. In its ode to the movie theater, the ad depicts an empty, placeless theater and primarily extols the immaterial aspects of spectatorship.8UK theater chain Vue released a similar ad in January 2020 starring John Boyega also making the argument for moviegoing as an alternative to other screens like televisions and iPhones. The ad also dematerialized moviegoing by representing the experience as a two-hour escape into an abyss. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sK2qeO53oHQ. With its famous “heartbreak feels good in a place like this” and its montage of recent-ish blockbuster films, Kidman is poised as an isolated viewer surrounded by a beam of light from the projector. The ad emphasizes the emotional pull of the cinema but gives little attention to the material surround of moviegoing. The blankness of this space has been the subject of countless parodies and jokes including Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue at the 2023 Oscars: “I’m happy to see Nicole Kidman has finally been released from that abandoned AMC where she has been held captive for almost two full years.”9Quoted in Devin Meena, “Jimmy Kimmel Roasted Nicole Kidman’s AMC Theatres Commercial At The Oscars, So Maybe It’s Over Now,” https://www.slashfilm.com/1225520/jimmy-kimmel-roasted-nicole-kidmans-amc-theatres-commercial-at-the-oscars/.

Still from AMC’s “We Make Movies Better” ad campaign starring Nicole Kidman as a rapt movie viewer

AMC’s approach to theaters reopening leans into long-held notions of the immersive “magic of the movies” by deemphasizing the very materialities of theatrical moviegoing, while customers returning to the theater were greeted with quite a different landscape than suggested by Kidman’s ethereal, rapt presence. For most moviegoers, returning to the theaters involved a negotiation of personal risk and anxiety, as audiences were met with new moviegoing protocols like plastic partitions at ticket counters and hand sanitizing stations. Frequent news coverage throughout the pandemic outlined ever-changing procedures and would survey the perceived “safety” of moviegoing. Such accounts also inadvertently emphasized and introduced new materialities to the theatrical moviegoing experience, like masks, theater ventilation, designated seating and the possible risks associated with enjoying concessions.10See Michael Ordoña,“Movie theater safety during COVID, the sequel: This time it’s personal” LA Times, January 25, 2022, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-01-25/movie-theater-safety-during-covid-the-sequel-this-time-its-personal, and Brooks Barns, “New Safety Standards for Moviegoing as U.S. Theaters Reopen,” New York Times, August 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/21/business/movie-theaters-reopen-standards-coronavirus.html. While I am largely focusing on US examples, Tupur Chatterjee specifically addresses how COVID protocols were promoted alongside the return to moviegoing in India. See Tupur Chatterjee, “The House cannot be full: Risk, Anxiety and the Politics of Collective Spectatorship in a Pandemic,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 25, no. 3–4 (2022): 384–403, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/13678779211066330.

Viewers negotiated new procedures and risks in returning to movie theaters. Michael Ordoña,“Movie Theater Safety during COVID, the Sequel: This Time it’s Personal” Los Angeles Times, January 25, 2022, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-01-25/movie-theater-safety-during-covid-the-sequel-this-time-its-personal, Photo Credit Jay L. Clendenin /Los Angeles Times

As Anne Friedberg posits in The Virtual Window, one of the fundamental paradoxes of the movies is “the materiality of the theater, (and the) virtuality of the image.”11Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 155. While AMC and other major theater chains continue to lean into notions of the “virtuality of the image” before all else, COVID’s in-between moviegoing and exhibition practices repeatedly confronted viewers with the materiality of moviegoing and the manifold objects that constitute our viewing surround and experiences. Unlike AMC, several post-COVID films and their surrounding discourse better engaged the materialities of exhibition. In the introductory video to the theatrical release of Top Gun: Maverick in May 2022, Tom Cruise directly addresses theater audiences by welcoming them back to the theater. In the clip, Cruise emphasizes some of the unique materialities of his movie (he mentions the “real jets” used in the film’s production) and of moviegoing in general (the “real popcorn, on the biggest screens….only in the theaters”).12“Top Gun: Maverick Exclusive – Tom Cruise Summer Movie Greeting (2022),” Rotten Tomato Trailers, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHOQS3BSYho. While participating in the larger push to “save” theatrical movie going, Cruise acknowledges how specific materials shape and inform the screening surround like concessions and screen size. While Top Gun: Maverick is invested in harnessing narrative realism for an immersive big screen experience, Cruise’s direct address to the audience appeals to the very conditions of theatrical spectatorship through an engagement with the material conditions of movie viewing.

Conclusion: Close Encounters at the Movie Theater

Like Kidman’s AMC ad and Top Gun: Maverick’s paratextual engagement with the return to moviegoing, Jordan Peele’s allegorical sci-fi/horror film Nope (2022) offers another response to the shifting materialities of COVID-era screening practices. As Peele described in an interview with the New York Times, Nope is very much a product of the pandemic era and its changing exhibition practices: “in 2020, when I was writing this film and everyone was saying that movie theaters as we know them might be gone — for me, the theatrical experience is everything.”13Mekado Murphy, “Jordan Peele Says There May Be More ‘Nope’ Stories to Come,” New York Times, August 29, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/29/movies/jordan-peele-nope.html. And further, when describing Jean Jacket, the film’s ambiguous, metamorphosing alien monster, Peele utilizes language that might describe pandemic fears in general: “So I created something that … felt like you’re so massively out of any sense of control, and in that state with a group of people.” He then describes the monster’s interior in terms that evoke theatrical moviegoing: “there’s a larger sense of the interior of that space. It’s much more like a theater in itself. And there’s something of a bouncy-castle-from-hell energy going on with the way it conducts wind and all.”14Mekado Murphy, “Jordan Peele Says There May Be More ‘Nope’ Stories to Come,” New York Times, August 29, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/29/movies/jordan-peele-nope.html. In his own description of the monster, Peele constructs an inflatable theater, suggesting his preoccupations with the uncertain and flexible state of moviegoing during COVID-19, from the very real fears of seeing a movie during the pandemic to in-between screening practices like the aforementioned inflatable cinemas.

Nope poses a curious fascination with inflatable objects, from the tube men that deflate when near the alien to the large inflatable cowboy which eventually leads to Jean Jacket’s demise in the film’s final showdown. In Jean Jacket’s metamorphoses, she also resembles, as one reviewer says, “gauzy materials evocative of curtains” or, say, a white sheet.15Vulture Staff, “Is the Alien in Nope a Metaphor?” Vulture, August 3, 2022, https://www.vulture.com/2022/08/is-the-alien-in-nope-a-metaphor.html. When read through the framework of COVID’s in-between screening practices, Nope presents an amalgam of screen materials in conflict. When Jean Jacket explodes after attempting to digest the large inflatable, a brick building occupies the bottom right corner of the frame with the words “theater” clearly legible on its facade. Through the film’s conclusion, Nope seems to be indicating that these in-between materials of the monster were part of the COVID nightmare and, with its subjugation, the theater stands triumphant. 

Still from Nope (2022) of “Theatre” with Jean Jacket looming in the background

While Jordan Peele might claim that the “theatrical experience is everything,” Nope is not a straightforward narrative about the return to theatrical moviegoing.16Mekado Murphy, “Jordan Peele Says There May Be More ‘Nope’ Stories to Come,” New York Times, August 29, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/29/movies/jordan-peele-nope.html. A multi-layered and intentionally ambiguous text, Nope points to several possibilities in our encounters with moving images. As the film nods to the raced histories of cinematic labor through its allusions to the Muybridge jockey and features multiple image-capturing technologies, it repeatedly asks us to reconsider overlooked material engagements with moving image culture, whether that be their labor practices, filming and viewing technologies, or movie collectibles and memorabilia. As a product of COVID’s many in-betweens, Nope presents us with close encounters with various screening materials, where the theater itself is one among many of the objects in the scene. As we continue to navigate the debates and current “crises” of contemporary theatrical exhibition, COVID’s liminal screenings with their expansive materials and screening modalities show how material culture shapes and informs our collective screen desires, and remind us, especially in the digital era, of the always imbricated relationships between the materials of media exhibition, the moving image and the viewer.

Notes

Notes
1 Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece and Stephen Groening, “Afterword: Objects in the Theater,” Film History 28, no. 3, Objects, Exhibition, and the Spectator (2016): 141, https://doi.org/10.2979/filmhistory.28.3.07.
2 Haidee Wasson, Everyday Movies: Portable Film Projectors and the Transformation of American Culture (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2020), 179.
3 Hannah Goldfield, “Tables for Two: A Diner Turned Drive-In in Queens,” The New Yorker, May 29, 2020, 11, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/08/a-diner-turned-drive-in-in-queens.
4 For more on the bedsheet as an early screen material, see Andrea Kelley, “Bedsheet Cinema: The Materiality of the Segregating Screen,” Film History: An International Journal 31, no. 3 (2019): 1–26, https://doi.org/10.2979/filmhistory.31.3.01.
5 Jeanette Settembre, “Back Yard Movie Theaters Boom in Coronavirus,” Fox Business, July 28, 2020, https://www.foxbusiness.com/lifestyle/with-movie-theaters-closed-during-coronavirus-backyard-screening-up.
6 For a great example of the entrepreneurial spirt behind small-scale pop-up cinemas, see The Money Etiquette Group LLC, “Starting a Backyard Movie Business During a Pandemic Ep. 11,” YouTube, July 13, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HM2SzLXF08Q&t=448s.
7 The reopening of movie theaters varied widely across the US depending on state-level COVID regulations. While many US theaters opened across the South by August 2020, theaters in larger metropolitan areas like New York and LA delayed reopening until March 2021. According to Kate Fortmueller, “65% of the world’s theaters” were opened by Labor Day weekend 2020. See Kate Fortmueller, Hollywood Shutdown: Production, Distribution, and Exhibition in the Time of COVID (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021), 90.
8 UK theater chain Vue released a similar ad in January 2020 starring John Boyega also making the argument for moviegoing as an alternative to other screens like televisions and iPhones. The ad also dematerialized moviegoing by representing the experience as a two-hour escape into an abyss. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sK2qeO53oHQ.
9 Quoted in Devin Meena, “Jimmy Kimmel Roasted Nicole Kidman’s AMC Theatres Commercial At The Oscars, So Maybe It’s Over Now,” https://www.slashfilm.com/1225520/jimmy-kimmel-roasted-nicole-kidmans-amc-theatres-commercial-at-the-oscars/.
10 See Michael Ordoña,“Movie theater safety during COVID, the sequel: This time it’s personal” LA Times, January 25, 2022, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-01-25/movie-theater-safety-during-covid-the-sequel-this-time-its-personal, and Brooks Barns, “New Safety Standards for Moviegoing as U.S. Theaters Reopen,” New York Times, August 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/21/business/movie-theaters-reopen-standards-coronavirus.html. While I am largely focusing on US examples, Tupur Chatterjee specifically addresses how COVID protocols were promoted alongside the return to moviegoing in India. See Tupur Chatterjee, “The House cannot be full: Risk, Anxiety and the Politics of Collective Spectatorship in a Pandemic,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 25, no. 3–4 (2022): 384–403, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/13678779211066330.
11 Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 155.
12 “Top Gun: Maverick Exclusive – Tom Cruise Summer Movie Greeting (2022),” Rotten Tomato Trailers, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHOQS3BSYho.
13, 14, 16 Mekado Murphy, “Jordan Peele Says There May Be More ‘Nope’ Stories to Come,” New York Times, August 29, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/29/movies/jordan-peele-nope.html.
15 Vulture Staff, “Is the Alien in Nope a Metaphor?” Vulture, August 3, 2022, https://www.vulture.com/2022/08/is-the-alien-in-nope-a-metaphor.html.
Kelley, Andrea J. "Close Encounters: In-Between Screens and the Materialities of COVID-era Exhibition." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 9, no. 2 (June 2024)
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