Masks at the movies recall a Pandemic from the past, and how it shaped Hollywood’s present

Written by: Danica Creahan – June 21st, 2020 6:29pm pst

On June 18, AMC theatres announced their plans to push towards reopening by July 15. The announcement sparked controversy for its lack of consensus on mask requirements, and very directly called out rumors of the chain struggling financially. Many news publications in the past few months have speculated on whether this pandemic would be the one to eliminate movie theatres altogether.

Swirling around the announcement of AMC’s official reopening date is a sense of whiplash from movie fans. At first, mask requirements inside the theatre would be based on local regulations; then, in less than 24 hours, face coverings were mandatory inside of AMC. 

Credit: AMC

Though it might seem odd to wear a mask to the movies, It won’t be the first time in history that it’s been required. In fact, Covid-19 isn’t the first pandemic to spark concern over movie theatres going extinct. The film industry was majorly shaped by a pandemic all the way back in 1918, and now in 2020, it appears history may be replaying itself. 

The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was largely the catalyst for the structure of the film industry. During the outbreak in the US, between 80% and 90% of American movie theaters were closed for roughly two to six months, and after they reopened, masks were given away as part of audiences tickets. But the closures wiped out a lot of smaller, independent theatres, with many that couldn’t afford to reopen being bought out by producer Adolph Zukor. Zukor was the head of what was then called Famous Players, which would evolve to become Paramount.

Credit: Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock

In an interview with Deadline, Hollywood historian William Mann, author of Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood, laid out how Zukor used the 1918 pandemic to dominate the film industry, pushing out female and filmmakers of color and creating the first vertically integrated movie studio, which produced, distributed, and exhibited its films in its own theaters. 

“The cinema in 1921, just two years after the epidemic, was nothing like the industry from 1918, it had so radically changed. The length of the movies and the way people bought tickets for movies, all of this changed.” Mann Told Deadline, “I look now at streaming services that now basically use Zukor’s model. They control production, distribution and exhibition. Zukor would be cheering them on.”

After the 1918 pandemic, the industry had been reformed and the studios had come out on top as the head honchos, controlling everything from development to distribution. In 1938, the U.S. government sued every major studio for violating antitrust laws, naming the largest of the studios, Paramount, as the chief defendant. Then, in 1948, in a 7–1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that film studios could no longer own their own theaters. The case, United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. once again disrupted and reshaped the film industry, dismantling the monopolistic studio system that ruled the Golden Age of Hollywood. 

In November of 2019, the Department of Justice announced the roll-back of these restrictions in light of the variety of streaming platforms now in existence. This roll-back allows production studios to once again own movie theatres.

So here we are, in 2020. With theatres closed and audiences wary to return, or wary to wear a mask for their return. Production is halted and movies are being released directly to audiences in their homes. The industry is in what feels like uncharted territory. But really, we are in the shadow of the 1918 pandemic, at a crossroads eerily similar to the one we faced a century ago. 

With theaters moving to reopen and secure their financial footing in an antitrust law-free world, weighing mask regulations against desire for a return to normalcy, we must watch out for how this pandemic, in 2020, will shape the new normal for Hollywood. 

About The Author:

Danica Creahan is a student of Journalism at Loyola Marymount University and Intern at AfterBuzz TV with a passion for story-telling and rewatching 90’s TV shows.

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