James DeMonaco is the writer and director of the feature films The Purge, The Purge: Anarchy, The Purge: Election Year and Staten Island, as well as co-founder of the Man in a Tree production company. He also wrote the films The Negotiator and Assault on Precinct 13. He created and executive produced The Purge TV series, as well as the cable television miniseries The Kill Point, which starred John Leguizamo. He recently co-wrote the novel Feral with Brian Evenson, which was published by Random House, and his children’s novel The Curious Chronicles of Jack Bokimble and His Peculiar Penumbra was published by Inkshares Inc. in 2017. The latest film he wrote and directed, This is the Night, starring Naomi Watts, Bobby Cannavale and Frank Grillo, is now available to stream. He lives in Staten Island with his wife and daughter. He is an avid New York Yankees fan.
I love to watch movies in a theater, as God intended it. Cinema was my religion growing up, the movie theater my house of worship – and I know the theatrical experience cannot be replicated in any way, shape or form. Films transport the audience to distant worlds, other times, where we meet new people and experience different cultures. The best mode of transportation to these times and places is, and must be, the theater. The darkened cinema, with that single swath of flickering projector light as its engine, cuts us off from the real world and allows us the most immersive experience imaginable. That cannot be replicated, no matter how hard we try, anywhere else.
It’s simply impossible.
As we enter into this new world of streaming, we’re losing so much by experiencing films at home more and more often, far away from that temple of worship. I hear about the inevitable extinction of this incomparable experience, I see clues of its disappearance in the dwindling audience numbers, and my heart begins to sink. I pray to the Cinema Gods that somehow, some way, we can hold onto the magic of going to the movies.
Going to the movies back in the day … Finding showtimes in the newspaper … Traveling to the theater in car or by public transportation … Waiting on line, sometimes for hours, to buy tickets (Rocky, Jaws, The Exorcist, E.T., The Karate Kid, etc.) … Getting popcorn, sprinkling some Sno-Caps on top, melted just enough … (but don’t consume the Sno-Caps/popcorn mix until the first frame of the movie rolls) … Finding your favorite seats … Watching trailers to see what’s coming next (and leaving the theater if you come too late and miss even one trailer – many girlfriends hated me for this rule) … And then the potential ride of your life when the lights dim …
It was an event. Every moment of this ritualistic routine created the sense of something big unfolding, like a Zeppelin concert, a Yankees World Series game.
I still remember every single movie I saw as a kid growing up in Brooklyn and Staten Island: which theater I was in, whom I saw it with, and usually even what I was wearing. Seeing Jaws six times in six days at the Island Twin! I forced my mom to take me, wouldn’t take no for an answer. And for some crazy reason, Mom obliged. Each viewing was more exhilarating than the last. I was on the Orca with Quint, Brody, and Hooper. The experience under the projector light was so immersive and downright terrifying that when I came home, I couldn’t go in our swimming pool for weeks. John Williams’ score ingrained in my ears, haunting me in the best way. My fanaticism started early, and my parents decided to keep feeding my passion.
I saw The Warriors in Brooklyn; the older kids went bananas afterwards, wrestling, chasing one another through the Bensonhurst streets, as if part of Walter Hill’s film. The energy in the neighborhood was palpable and infectious, and I tried to bring that same feeling to my new movie, This is the Night. The audience feeds off what’s coming from the screen, and takes it outside in the most wonderful way.
At 10, my dad took me to see Apocalypse Now on the big screen (unwisely, some might say, but I thank him for it), and it was inside the theater that day that my life officially changed. I could not shake the collective energy I felt that afternoon, and the theater wasn’t even crowded. (It just needs to be a spattering of people to have that communal experience.) At such a young age, I couldn’t possibly have understood what Coppola and his collaborators were trying to convey, but the images coming off the screen were so dreamlike and impactful that the foundations of my world were shaken. Upon exiting, I said to my dad, “I have to be a part of whatever I just saw.” I had witnessed a dream/nightmare, and from then on, I believed that films should feel like watching another person’s subconscious coming to life.
I dearly miss movies in theaters, as I haven’t gone since the start of the pandemic. Before COVID-19, I would go to the theater at least two or three times a week. I long for that communal energy, the shared experience – a simple look between two viewers, who have never met, sitting seats apart, accentuating the collective. I remember seeing Antichrist at the Film Forum; Gainsbourg bashing Dafoe in the groin with a log, and everyone in the theater trading looks of shock and horror – a feeling that we are in this together, that we are not alone in the human experience.
It’s been especially hard during these pandemic months, because the film I just made, This is the Night, is a movie about the sanctity of that whole theater experience. The film focuses on a Staten Island family and their lives on the day in 1982 when Rocky III opened. I remember it vividly. We waited on line for tickets all day; the energy on the line was electric – people chanting “Rocky!”, praying for entry and good seats. There was an aura of anticipation built off the love of the previous two installments in the franchise, and it all reached a fever pitch that afternoon. Rocky was a character beloved in my community, which I initially assumed was because my neighborhood was predominantly Italian-American, like him. The film played for 24 hours on every screen across the Island, and almost every showing sold out. When the original Rocky played there, people were standing and cheering, and it was the same, recently, when Creed played on the Island. There’s something about the character of Rocky that has really touched the hearts and souls of not just Italian-Americans, but all of America. I came to learn Rocky was the embodiment of the American Dream – he was given an opportunity and he seized it. We all wanted the same chance as Rocky. Rocky III lived up to all the hype we brought to it. We were on our feet for the entire last battle between Rocky and Clubber, as if at a live prize fight. Young and old, cheering together as one, a communal experience of euphoria unlike anything I had ever seen. After the show, when the lights came up, the cheering continued through the credits. And no one left until the credits ended.
In This is the Night, Rocky III is the film that inspires and impacts the characters, but the film playing could just as well have been anything from that era, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to The Bad News Bears to Taxi Driver – any film that spoke to me, moved me, and left imprints on my soul and psyche. Ultimately, that’s what it’s about for me: the impact and impressions, from being horrified to being inspired, from empathy to sorrow.
Movies changed my life. They allowed me to see the world beyond where I lived. They were thrilling, funny, life-affirming and disturbing. They were a lens into cultures and worlds that were completely foreign to me. I want younger generations to experience the impact of cinema as I did, and at the risk of sounding quite old, I worry that they soon won’t be able to. Is the theatrical experience becoming an artifact of a lost time with younger generations seeking entertainment on the internet, PlayStation, TikTok and streaming services? How do we pull teens away from their phones and computers and put them back in theater seats to experience the immersive, incomparable magic of cinema?
The size of the moviegoing audience will determine how many theaters will survive over the next decade. We need the younger generation to rediscover cinema, or slowly, over time, more theaters will close, one after another. Kids and teens are still going to Marvel films and horror movies in theaters, which is wonderful, but they need to go to other movies, too, otherwise dramas, foreign films and indies will be relegated to the streaming services. I want to be able to see the next Béla Tarr film in theaters when it comes out, just as much as the next Matrix movie.
I always loved the moment in the theater lobby when I’d buy my ticket at the booth and scrutinize the expressions of the people exiting the theater from the previous showing, analyzing their reactions … Is that shock? Is that happiness? Is it awe? What did they just experience?!
And now it could go all away. We can’t let it.