Post-Covid cinema going

In this time of isolation, we miss the smiles of helpful strangers on the street, the noises of bustling offices and busy marketplaces, the smell of butter popcorn permeating through a quiet auditorium. 

Cinemas, restaurants, and malls have been closed for four to six weeks. Rightfully so, as health, safety and trepidations of attracting Covid-19 transcend any benefits of social gatherings. Despite the rise of streaming services and online content, the pandemic worries cinema owners, filmmakers and avid cinemagoers like never before. Growing fears of social spaces and delays in release dates of movies (Sooryavanshi, 83), make us wonder how the cinemagoing experience will change, or if the comfort of sitting in a closed room with many people will ever return.

Historically, movie theatres acted as conduits of escapism, and hence survived the Spanish Flu, world wars, and technological shifts

Nonetheless, this uncertain time not only makes us grateful for our safety and that of our families, but also confirms our desires for the future. We long for a future that is not too different from our past, where health is a priority and where we return to conduits of escapism. Historically, movie theatres acted as these conduits, hence their survival through pandemics (Spanish Flu), world wars (1920s-1940s), and technological shifts (TV in the 1950s, VCR in the 1980s). Today, cinemas provide something more, an experience growing rare in an isolating digital age – unspoken and emotional bonding with a group of strangers. 

It’s this combination of apprehension and longing that has driven cinema chains to introspect on ways to reinvent themselves, to allay customer concerns, provide a safe space for viewing movies, and preserve a longstanding social tradition. 

First, social distancing will continue. The WHO advised a one-meter distance between individuals to help prevent the spread of the virus. To facilitate this, fewer shows in the cinema’s programming and staggered seating (gaps) between groups in the auditoriums can ensure the minimum space requirement is met. For this, digital booking systems (app or online), will prevent any selections of adjacent seats by separate groups or parties. In the foyer and washrooms, the addition of ‘one-meter’ floor stickers and glass barriers at the box office and concessions will guide customers and employees on standing apart. These will be easier to navigate in non-peak hours during the week. 

Second, ‘touch’ points will be limited, not only by encouraging digital payments, but also by implementing QR codes on food and beverage packaging so customers can scan and pay using their mobile devices. Cinemas will also operate with a truncated menu, so the focus remains on packaging staples (popcorn, soft drinks, nachos) and core eatables (wraps, burgers, pizzas). Deploying popcorn and soft drink vending machines will also facilitate self-service, limit interactions between people and reduce the chances of queuing at the concession. At the entrance, security will no longer conduct body checks using handheld metal detectors but use contactless scanning. The baggage check counters will also be converted to self-service and sanitised at 30-minute intervals. 

Third, there will be a prevalence of health checkpoints and sanitisation, a responsibility that will fall primarily on cinemas. Cinema employees will ensure an adequate stock and availability of hand sanitisers at all interaction points; furthermore, the auditoriums will undergo deep cleaning via the ULV sanitation process (ultra low volume, which provides an anti-bacterial layer for up to 30 days), air purification through ducts, and have anti-bacterial films on all door handles. Additionally, temperatures of all customers will be checked at entry points and sensor-based taps, flushes, soap dispensers will also be essential where possible.

Finally, there will be strong communication and highly trained staff. Cinema employees themselves will go through health check-ups, medical check-ins with doctors, and training in wearing masks and gloves. Employees will also be prepared to handle customers who display symptoms and answer all questions from customers on cinema sanitisation, the health of other customers, and staff hygiene. Most importantly, posters, videos, digital screens will display reminders for customers and employees to use sanitisers and maintain distance from other patrons. 

These are some ways the cinema reimagines itself, but the post-Covid era of moviegoing will require a collective effort that includes the audiences, production houses, cinema owners and the central and state governments. The revival of the moviegoing experience to its past glory cannot be achieved by one stakeholder alone. 

In the past, cinemas provided a space for cathartic entertainment and emotional solidarity among strangers, strangers who gathered incidentally at the same time for the same purpose – to experience a new story. In his recent op-ed for The Washington Post, Christopher Nolan writes, “In uncertain times, there is no more comforting thought than that we’re all in this together, something the moviegoing experience has been reinforcing for generations.”

It is this habit of emotional togetherness that we crave and that our future will require us to mimic. 

(Author bio: A graduate in international relations and economics, Nayana Bijli is working in PVR on the conceptualisation and execution of Cinema Reimagined as well as on a mental health initiative)

From HT Brunch, May 17, 2020

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