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Can the film industry lure audiences back to the big screen?


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Judy Woodruff: With summer under way, movie studios and box offices are clamoring for theatergoers to return, as pandemic restrictions ease. And there's evidence that it's beginning to happen.

The latest installment of the "Fast and Furious" franchise, "F9," earned $70 million this past weekend. That was the biggest opening for a movie since the pandemic began.

Jeffrey Brown looks at what else theaters have in store this summer for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Movie theaters are reopening across the country, but are film lovers ready to return?

We look at some of the summer films that hope to lure them with Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday and Aisha Harris, host of NPR's "Pop Culture Happy Hour."

Nice to see you, Ann, in person.

And nice to see you, Aisha.

Let's start first -- before we get to films, Aisha, are we seeing people returning to movie theaters?

Aisha Harris: There are definitely people who are ready to go back out there.

And it's -- I don't think it's just cinephiles and film critics like myself. You saw something like "A Quiet Place Part II," which did pretty well at the box office. It opened with around with a lot a lot of buzz. And it was held over from the pandemic. And it is also the kind of movie that is a thriller. It's crafted to be seen in a theater with other people.

So I think that we are definitely seeing people ready to go back to theaters.

Jeffrey Brown: Ann, what do you think?

Ann Hornday: I agree.

And I think it's fascinating that "A Quiet Place II" has already passed $100 million, which was something of a milestone in the pandemic era.

Also, the "Conjuring" sequel has done incredibly well. And horror, of course, is one of those genres that demands to be seen in the theater.

Jeffrey Brown: You have got to go to the theater, yes.

Ann Hornday: Right. The pleasure of it is to experience those jump scares together.

Jeffrey Brown: Why don't you start with a couple of the blockbusters that are coming that the industry is really relying on now?

Ann Hornday: Well, obviously, "Black Widow," the sort of origin story of the Scarlett Johansson character, who's been incredibly popular with Marvel fans, including myself. We have been clamoring for a Black Widow movie. So I think there's a really high interest in that.

And then "F9," the latest "Fast and Furious" installment, that's just been a juggernaut of a of a franchise, hugely fun to see on a big screen, one of those movies that I think Hollywood and the studios are counting on people flocking to in the theater.

Jeffrey Brown: Aisha, what about some other maybe smaller ones or middle of the road that you're looking forward to?

Aisha Harris: Well, I am especially excited for everyone to see "Zola," which premiered at Sundance 2020 right before everything went bad, went south.

And it's a road trip movie. It's an absurdist movie. It's a smaller movie that I hope people go see. And that movie is actually only going to be in theaters for its original release. It won't have a VOD simultaneous release.

I hope people check out "Summer of Soul," which is a documentary that premiered at this year's Sundance. That will be streaming on Hulu next month. It captured this festival that occurred in 1969 in Harlem. And it was a grand musical festival with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Gladys Knight & the Pips, to Sly and the Family Stone.

It was buried for 50 years, and now it's been unearthed. And the performances are just fantastic.

Jeffrey Brown: So, Ann, do you have a couple that you really want -- you want make sure people know about?

Ann Hornday: Well, I'm a huge fan of that movie.

I also loved "CODA," which was one of the big titles that came out of Sundance this year. It's a coming of age story about a high school student who has been the only hearing member of her family. So she's been sort of their translator to the outside world, and now she's trying to strike out on her own and find her own path.

And it is touching. It's hilariously funny. There's -- she's in a glee club, so there's great music. It is a crowd-pleaser.

And then the other one I'm really looking forward to is "Respect," which is the Aretha Franklin biopic with Jennifer Hudson. I'm very eager to see that.

Jeffrey Brown: Now we have come to a year that in some ways changed everything, or how much did it change in terms of big screens and small screens?

Ann Hornday: This is the question.

I mean, I think the good news about the past year is that it has proven that people are as into visual storytelling as ever. I mean, when you think about the past 14, 15 months, when we were all Zooming together, what did we ask? What are you watching?

Now the question is, do movies have a discreet presence amid that fire hose of image -- sound and image and storytelling? And I do think that these early numbers from theatrical filmgoing are encouraging, because people are seeing them when they can and where they want to.

Jeffrey Brown: Aisha, what do you see in terms of how movies are made and where they will be seen now?

Aisha Harris: I agree with Ann.

And I also think we were having these conversations before the pandemic about what the future of movie-going was. And I think that they're going to continue.

My biggest fear and concern is that people will go back to the theaters, but only to see the big budget movies like "F9," like "A Quiet Place." And I fear that these smaller movies, like the ones we have just talked about, may not be as successful on screen.

But, to me, if people can see films in any way, shape or form, even if it's not the way that I would personally prefer to see it, I think that's a win for the industry overall.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, Aisha Harris of NPR, Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post, thank you very much.

Ann Hornday: Thank you.

Aisha Harris: Thank you.

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