After seeing a film on the big screen for the first time since before the pandemic, I’m convinced movie-watching in a theater will always beat streaming at home

Movie theater
There’s truly nothing like the immersive, out-of-body experience of seeing a movie in a theater – an experience that streaming at home can’t afford you. Katie Canales/Insider
  • I saw “Shang-Chi” in an Alamo Drafthouse, my first movie theater experience since fall 2019.
  • I ate bottomless popcorn, felt the booming surround sound, and got lost in the film for 2 hours.
  • I’m convinced that direct-to-streaming movie releases will never live up to the theater.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” has smashed box office records since it debuted on Sept. 3.

And not just pandemic-era records. It’s seen more success than even some pre-pandemic films, earning $US90 ($AU122) million over the course of the four-day Labor Day weekend.

The movie’s release proved a few things: that the Marvel franchise is ridiculously powerful, that exclusive theatrical windows can curb online piracy, and that people still want to see movies in a theater.

I’m one of those people. At least, if my excursion to see “Shang-Chi” this past week is any indication.

I watched “Black Widow,” the Marvel character’s stunning standalone movie, just weeks before – in my sweatpants, on my couch, with my 40-inch (102cm) TV via Disney+.

Being in a physical movie theater – where the hallways are lined with posters, the snack bar stocked with bottomless popcorn, surround sound blasting, and the wider aspect ratio of a gigantic movie screen – convinced me that the pandemic-era experiment of simultaneous dual movie releases might be convenient, but that will never live up to the magical theater experience.

Theaters are exhausted from being battered since March 2020

Movie theater
‘Shang-Chi’ movie posters were among those hanging inside the Alamo Drafthouse. Katie Canales/Insider

I went to an Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas to see the movie. Just 5 months prior, the chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Most US theaters were closed from March to August 2020, and Alamo Drafthouse was forced to furlough some of its workforce in March 2020.

The industry has been fighting a confluence of factors, from local shutdown and safety protocols to what studios felt they needed to do to survive: debut movies directly on streaming platforms.

“Mulan,” “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “Wonder Woman 1984,” and “Cruella” are just some of the films that have been released on sites like HBO Max and Disney+. Many of them have become the most pirated movies of the year as a result.

But as vaccines are distributed, theaters have started slowly opening and seeing blockbuster opening weekends again. Even Alamo Drafthouse sees some upsides – it said in June that it plans on opening five new locations in the US.

Alamo drafthouse
A sign reading ‘Welcome Back to the Movies’ outside the Alamo Drafthouse. Katie Canales/Insider

Studios are starting to pull back on direct-to-streaming releases, like Disney, Paramount, and Warner Bros., who all have agreed to exclusive theatrical release windows. There are still some hold-outs, like Universal, which is dual-releasing “Halloween Kills” on Peacock and in theaters next month.

But for the most part, the world of traditional cinema is seeing signs of life.

There couldn’t have been a better movie than to welcome me back to the theater

Bus fight scene Shang-Chi
Simu Liu stars as Shang-Chi. Marvel Studios

I thoroughly enjoyed “Black Widow” when I saw it in early July on Disney+.

But “Shang-Chi” blew it and so many of its Marvel predecessors out of the water – and I don’t know if I could have felt the true breadth of the movie’s brilliance if I had paid the $US30 ($AU41) fee and watched it on Disney+ at home.

I was also still living in San Francisco when “Shang-Chi” was being filmed. So seeing the action-packed scene on the city’s bus system – the same line and street I took to work – was cathartic. The last time I went to a movie theater was in San Francisco, after all.

There certainly will be some lasting symptoms of pandemic-era streaming releases, such as how many people have grown accustomed to enjoying new media at home as well as shortened theatrical release windows.

But for all the speculation about movie theaters being dead, I’m confident that that couldn’t be farther from the truth.