The first movie theater opened in Pittsburgh, PA in 1905. In 1929, mere weeks before the beginning of The Great Depression, Rochester’s own independent cinema, The Little Theatre, opened. In early 2020, theaters across the world shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

All this time though, The Little has stood firm, a reminder of the staying power of cinema. The Little, along with other movie theater experiences, help us to understand how film brings us together, even during times of great hardship.

Why Cinema Remains Strong

Often, people point to streaming services as the future of film. However, there are many parts of the theatrical experience you miss when you stream a movie directly to your living room.

That is nowhere more apparent than at a place like The Little. Scott Pukos is the public relations and social media coordinator for the theater.

“We call it ‘The Little Experience.’ It’s more than movies; it’s a discussion and an atmosphere," Pukos said.

Gord Hotchkiss, an expert in online behavior, notes the difference between singular and group viewing experiences. Watching a movie with a crowd of people, just as excited as you are, can have a positive impact on your recollection of the film. You will remember watching a big event movie in theaters, even if you can’t separate all the times you’ve watched it at home afterward.

The other theatergoers play a surprisingly important role in this. While you’re bound to interact with some popcorn munchers and chatty Cathies here or there, the human element really ties together the theater-going experience.

"There’s a communal effect to watching things with a large crowd of people," stated Pukos.

There’s also a beauty to the size and scope of the silver screen. Many film directors praise the theatrical experience as the only way to truly enjoy their product. They don’t want you to just watch a movie; they want you to experience it.

Of course, there are positives to the experiences at home. It’s definitely cheaper, and it’s much easier to casually enjoy a movie with friends in the comfort of your own home. There’s just something about ‘going’ to the movies though.

When the lights are dimmed and the score begins to swell, a theater can fully envelop viewers in a way no living room can.

Pukos believes, “Some movies are just built to be seen on the big screen, because of that, there will always be a place for movie theaters.”

“Some movies are just built to be seen on the big screen, because of that, there will always be a place for movie theaters.”

Making Art Local

Places like The Little help to provide a more personal experience for a theatergoer. Closer to home, CAB Cinema is a great example of how to make movies community driven.

Caroline Cody, a third year Biomedical Sciences major and College Activities Board (CAB) Cinema coordinator, helps to bring movies directly to RIT. Every detail, down to the movies themselves, are selected to help immerse the student body in cinema.

“We look for [movies] we think a good population of the campus would like to see,” said Cody.

Even on a local scale, movies can help to bring us together. Watching the latest blockbuster or Oscar winner may not seem like a bonding experience, but CAB Cinema allows you to meet people on campus that you never would have otherwise.

Just like CAB Cinema does for campus, The Little provides value to the greater area. Pukos believes it is “uniquely Rochester.” He also added that The Little is about more than entertainment. It's also a part of Rochester's culture itself.

Along with showing movies, The Little is a great place for locals. The atmosphere in the theater and attached cafe is relaxed, and you can often find local bands or organizations holding events there.

This feeling stretches to even the biggest movie theater chains, as they often find themselves as local hubs, especially for the younger generation. While each of the experiences mentioned above are different, they provide the same thing: a sense of fun and community.

How Movies Bring Us Together

In times of hardship, people often rely on art to help them cope. That may partially be the reason people miss theaters so dearly when they’re unable to visit them. Luckily, the movies themselves hold a lot of that power too.

“When you’re watching a movie, you’re not focused on what’s happening around you. It can take your mind off things for a while,” Cody said.

Put simply, movies can help people destress.

This is what most people watch movies for. Good or bad, they can provide a necessary distraction during a stressful day or week. With such a vast amount of content available, it’s easy to find a movie specifically suited to your taste or mood. Looking for a pick-me-up? There are tons of classic feel-good movies to pick from. Want something scary? Hollywood has been churning out monster flicks since the beginning.

On a grander scale, movies help us to imagine realities outside of our own. Whether we use this power as an escape or driving force, is up to us. The potential is in our hands, and that’s part of what makes them so special.

Pukos believes that this “is really what art is all about. [Films] can spark curiosity, they can outrage us or they can entertain us.” Giving someone the capacity to choose though is what’s really empowering.

"[Films] can spark curiosity, they can outrage us or they can entertain us."

While everything else may seem out of your control, your understanding and choice of film is uniquely situated to your life and experiences. Over the years, movies and movie theaters have adapted to your tastes and preferences, not the other way around. This is how places like The Little have lasted so long. Pukos is certain that theaters like The Little will continue to do so.

“Cinema is vital, and it’s something we will keep doing, whether virtual or in person,” Pukos said.