Why the Nicole Kidman AMC ad matters

If you’ve been to a movie at AMC in the last two years, you’ve seen their now-legendary in-house commercial starring Nicole Kidman where she walks into a theater extolling the magic of movies, moviegoing, and AMC:

It’s sincere, borderline saccharine, and immediately after its debut in September 2021 became a lightning rod for hot takes and memes and parodies—all of which I read and enjoyed.

But a funny thing happened when I went to see a movie for the first time in a while: I realized just how true and meaningful that ad is.

“We come to this place for magic.”

I recently stumbled upon an old writing assignment of mine from 9th grade called This Is My Life, where we had to write a short paper focusing on important aspects of our lives. The title page told the story best, with its grid of posters from Back to the Future, Memento, Unbreakable, Saving Private Ryan, and other favorite movies showing what mattered most to me at that time. 

That assignment happened over 20 years ago, though I loved movies long before that, traipsing through the Disney canon as a kid before venturing into more adult fare as I got older (shoutout to my dad for bringing me to Mission: Impossible at 9 years old). In middle school I discovered Back to the Future, my first and abiding cinematic love. And from there my palate kept expanding into almost every genre, era, and region. While I didn’t become a cinematographer or director as I’d planned and indicated in that assignment, I did remain obsessed with movies and continued watching and loving and writing about them ever since. 

That includes co-founding Cinema Sugar last year as a place to celebrate the movies we love, why they matter, and how they connect us all. Watching great movies is something I’d be doing no matter what, but Cinema Sugar provides the impetus for contemplating them—and appreciating them—more deeply as we build Top 10 lists and even consider our all-time favorites.

“That indescribable feeling we get when the lights begin to dim.”

All of that was stewing in my subconscious when I recently got out for a rare trip to the movie theater as an early birthday present. With a full-time job and two young kids at home, I haven’t been able to go as much as I’d like or used to before kids. The entire summer movie season had passed me by: Asteroid City, Indiana Jones, Past Lives, Barbie… all movies I would have gone to under different circumstances. 

But at last I was going to Oppenheimer, and deeply grateful to be. I savored the short drive to the nearby AMC on a warm summer morning. After using up the last of a gift card on the ticket, I literally ran up the grand staircase to the second floor. Not because I was late, but because my body just needed to express the kinetic energy I was feeling inside. 

I was going to a movie! I thought. It’s something I’ve never taken for granted, even during my single days or child-free phase. Going to the movies is a gift, no matter when, and that felt especially true that day as I sat down just before Nicole Kidman’s entrance.

I knew it was coming. What I didn’t know is that this time around, this video I’d seen many times before would give me goosebumps and suddenly make me feel like I was watching it for the first time. Only now, I saw its sentiment not as cloying but profound: Movies are magical. Moviegoing is important. And all the snark about the ad betrays a tragic lack of gratitude for what it’s telling us.

It also gave me déjà vu, because I’d seen a similar epiphany play out before on screen at the same theater.

“Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place likе this.”

Less than a year ago I went to see Damien Chazelle’s film Babylon, wherein Manny (Diego Calva) is a laborer in 1920s Hollywood who happens to make connections with both the ambitious ingénue Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) and aging film star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt). He uses those connections to climb the studio ranks as an assistant, producer, and eventually director.

Over time he witnesses a lot: Nellie’s meteoric rise and fall, Jack’s slow obsolescence, an industry struggling to transition from silent movies to talkies—not to mention his own poor decisions gone terribly wrong. 

(Spoilers ahead—skip to past the photo if you want to avoid them.)

Decades later, we catch up with him when, long out of the business, he returns to Hollywood and visits his old studio. But it’s not until he ends up in a movie theater showing Singin’ in the Rain when memories start to resurface, the movie’s title song triggering a torrent of flashbacks to his formative times with Nellie and the industry he’d loved—both of whom didn’t quite love him back.

We see those flashbacks intermixed with a time-jumping, fourth-wall-breaking montage of clips from a whole century of cinema. Manny would not live to see most of it, but what he and Nellie and Jack and countless others did make in their time served as the essential foundation for films to come.

“I’ve always wanted to go on a movie set,” he’d told Nellie way back when. “I just want to be part of something bigger… Something that lasts, that means something.” Helpless before the shining silver screen, he breaks down in tears at the realization that he got what he wanted, that what he lived through had transformed into something much bigger than himself—and he was the surviving witness to it.

“And we go somewhere we’ve never been before—not just entertained, but somehow reborn.”

Sometimes I wonder if all this time and attention I give to movies is worth it. They’re just stories after all, a series of images that flash before my eyes for a short time and then disappear. The world is full of real people who are struggling—what good are movies to them? Dedicating my focus to moving pictures can often feel frivolous at best and morally negligent at worst. 

There’s a scene in Back to the Future Part II when Doc discovers Marty’s plan to use 2015’s sports almanac to bet on games back in 1985. “I didn’t invent the time machine for financial gain,” Doc says:

The intent here was to gain a clearer perception of humanity: where we’ve been, where we’re going, the pitfalls and the possibilities, the perils and the promise. Perhaps even an answer to that universal question: Why?”

That’s why movies matter. 

Movies are us. They show us our history and our future. They celebrate our wins and illuminate our sins. They beckon us into a reality completely different from—or exactly like—our own, and by doing so tell us more about others and ourselves than we could have discovered alone. They are something bigger than us.

That epiphany is what made Manny weep with bittersweet awe in Babylon. It’s what has for so long drawn me to movies as constant companions on the perilous journey through life. And it’s what I chase every time I press play on a Blu-ray or sit in a dark theater, eagerly awaiting Kidman’s earnest invocation.

So why movies?

“Because we need that—all of us.”