Movie Theaters are jolted by the Pandemic, but still an Irreplaceable Experience

Audiences should expect changes to the cinema, but the presentation of movies on the big screen will remain powerful.

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COVID-19 destroyed movie theaters.

For the first time in six months, I was going to the movie theater to see a new film. My hands pulled open the door of Regal Columbia & RPX, my mind already aware that I needed hand sanitizer after touching a public surface. The nostalgic rush of cool movie-theater air swept over my skin, but that was about the only thing that was the same. I walked through an empty lobby, unnerved by the absence of the typical crowds of friends, families and awkward first-dates. My virtual ticket was scanned, and I was in.

After I passed through empty hallways, I entered a theater with only two other girls, and took my seat alone. Granted, I was not expecting a huge crowd for a Wednesday evening showing, but it was peculiar to sit nine rows back and not have a single person in my line of sight. The entire movie-going experience I had loved seemed to be a distant memory.

But then the lights dimmed like always, the opening credits appeared on the screen, and the same burst of excitement filled my chest. In that dark theater, not knowing if it had been 15 minutes or two hours, the irrepressible pull of the big screen made the film my only focus. I forgot the things still on my to-do list, forgot the anxiety of my upcoming test, forgot all about reality. The movie theater never fails to transport me into the captivating world of the film.

Let me rephrase my earlier statement: COVID-19 destroyed the movie theaters of the past. But the theater experience simply cannot be replaced, and definitely won’t go down that easy.

Preceding the pandemic, cinemas were already facing challenges with the popularity of streaming services like Netflix, Disney Plus and Hulu. It’s both convenient and affordable to watch films from the comfort of your own home. Some film distributors like Regal Cinemas have launched subscription plans for unlimited movie showings each month in an effort to adapt to the changing film world. The pandemic has further complicated the industry, forcing most major theaters to close their doors from March until August.

That did not mean the end for major film distributors, however. Cinemark’s CEO Mark Zoradi said in an interview with CNBC that the theater can still turn a profit with only 20% to 30% occupancy. In a survey asking people how quickly they will return to theaters when they reopen after the pandemic, 34% reported that they would return within one month.

As with virtually any industry in the pandemic, change is inevitable. While cinemas invite movie buffs to return to the big screen, audiences should expect them to implement face mask requirements, socially distanced seating and contactless online payments. Each theater will implement the policies they deem necessary. For instance, Regal Cinemas has no self-service concession items, wall-mounted hand sanitizers and increased air circulation in theaters.

In essence, yes, the pandemic has delivered a sharp punch to the movie theater business. Yet at-home streaming services can never emulate the unique experience of the big screen — of being so wrapped up in a film that reality dissipates into a distant fog. Surround-sound speakers and sharp picture quality attempt to bring the theater into your home, but there are unending distractions that consistently beg for your attention.

Cinema screenings create an unspoken sense of community within a dark theater. Even with only two other girls there with me, the funny parts of the movie were funnier when there was an echo of laughter alongside mine. Movie theater audiences hold their breath together, they wipe tears from their eyes in sync and they get startled by the same jumpscares. After the movie is over, everyone will leave without a word, but there is an exhilarating feeling in knowing that you shared that film experience with other strangers, that you are connected by one moment of cinema.

That unmatched feeling will always stay, even with a mask.

Edited by George Frey | gfrey@themaneater.com

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