Going to the movies smells mostly like it used to

Amid all the changes that have happened to movie-going over the past two years – and even before that – there is one reliable, comforting constant: the smell of movie-theatre popcorn.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/01/2022 (484 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Amid all the changes that have happened to movie-going over the past two years – and even before that – there is one reliable, comforting constant: the smell of movie-theatre popcorn.

Our sense of smell is closely linked to memory; certain scents can evoke a time and a place more vividly than other senses. Movie popcorn — salty, butter-slicked movie popcorn — is one of those scents, perhaps because it has the tendency to linger in carpeted theatre floors. It conjures first movies (mine was The Little Mermaid in 1989) and awkward first dates, with furtive holding of hands over the armrest.

During a pandemic, it’s a deeply reassuring smell. On Friday afternoon, I went to Grant Park to see a matinee of Spider-Man: No Way Home — my first movie in a theatre since February 2020, when I saw Little Women. (That was also at Grant Park; once you get a taste of those fancy recliner seats, it’s very hard to go back to normal movie seats.)

Sony Pictures Spider-Man: No Way Home was Jen's first movie in a theatre since February 2020.

I’ll be honest: I felt semi-anxious about seeing a movie, in a theatre, with other people. I’ve been avoiding indoors-in-public activities since Omicron came on the scene. But if ‘normal’ had a smell, it would be movie-theatre popcorn. You could almost pretend there was no pandemic going on at all, if not for the masks, or the almost unsettling lack of people standing in lines.

Still, more people were out seeing movies on a Friday afternoon in January than I expected, however, though still a vanishingly small percentage of how many people would usually be there. Our theatre was populated by four spaced-out couples — including me and my husband — a group of four who sat together, and two single folks who sat at the back. I recognized them all from the lobby; the family with two little boys must have been seeing a different movie.

Mostly, I was in awe of how unhurried the experience was — even when the popcorn was slightly delayed by a bad batch. The young woman working concessions apologized profusely; the four of us who were waiting were just as profuse in our assurances that it was no problem.

This is in stark contrast to the Before Times. Movie-going could be stressful — especially if you were seeing, say, a 7:35 p.m. show on a Friday night with a group of friends. Woe to the person tasked with saving seats, a sweaty endeavour that would involve really stretching the limits of one parka and avoiding eye-contact with harrumphing fellow movie-goers. A packed theatre filled with people chewing simultaneously was also not my favourite, and somehow I always ended up sitting in front of a person who recaps the scene we literally just saw to their seatmate or loudly tries to figure out the twist. Like, wow, settle down, Detective Pikachu.

I found myself oddly wistful for the seat-kickers and the stage-whisperers.

Afterwards, the floor of that theatre would be absolutely demolished, sticky with spilled soda and dotted with candy, a brigade of bored teenage employees waiting by the door to sweep up the snowdrifts of popcorn that had accumulated on the floor before the next show.

I found myself oddly wistful for the seat-kickers and the stage-whisperers. Our theatre wasn’t empty, but it might as well have been. That absence-of-audience sensation started happening pre-pandemic with the advent of comfier, spaced-out, and assigned seats; the creature comforts of modern movie theatres already make it feel like you’re at some version of home. Laughing and crying with other people in a darkened theatre — you know, sharing in a collective experience — is part of the allure of seeing a movie on the big screen. I often felt like my husband and I were the only people laughing. It was an eerily subdued audience for a Marvel movie.

Still, some of those pre-pandemic improvements seemed oddly prophetic. Assigned seating, for one, is not new and accommodates physical distancing easily, and purchasing tickets online allows you to have a sense of how popular a show time is. They take your ticket right at the front now along with proof of vaccination, which eliminates the whole popcorn/drink/ticket juggling act one is forced to do in order to produce your ticket to get into the theatre.

Having a N95 mask suctioned to my face was mostly fine.

Having a N95 mask suctioned to my face was mostly fine, except I didn’t have the nose piece clamped on tight enough and my 3D glasses fogged up. I tried to take a sip of my drink without removing my mask and ended up getting a straw up the nose. And, to everyone’s credit, every last one of us put our masks back on when we weren’t eating.

That said, it took me a solid 30 minutes to work up to removing my mask to eat my popcorn — the first bites of which were euphoric, by the way, and just as I remembered. But I had forgotten the other good parts of going to the movies. I’d forgotten the anticipation, the excitement when the lights go down — to the point that a promotional video for the theatre made me emotional.

It feels good, after a long absence, to return to something and find it mostly as you’d left it.


Twitter: @JenZoratti

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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.

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