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How Are Cinemas and Theatres Going to Survive the Covid-19 Pandemic?

The Coronavirus has created a very different world within the space of a few weeks, starting with an influx of infections in China, spreading across the globe and ratcheting up thousands of deaths in the process. Now officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) it seems that governments are stepping up their responses in order to contain the virus and its knock-on effects.

As part of a the shutdown, many countries have instigated a policy whereby gatherings are either not permitted or very limited. This has led to a number of events being cancelled in an effort to flatten the curve and prevent much longer term consequences. This worldwide response echoes the influenza outbreak of 1918, as efforts are made to curb the spread of Covid-19, encouraging people to stay at home and practice good hygiene. While there's been much speculation on the virus and the outbreak, generating plenty of misinformation and memes in the process, it's clear that this pandemic is occupying most people's minds at present.

Can Cinemas and Theatres Survive the Pandemic

Unfortunately, with the cancellation of events and new limits in terms of what events are permitted, it does mean that cinemas and theatres have had to scramble to figure out the next step. While many people have been ordered to work from home and schools have closed, this has meant that there's an opportunity for people to visit the mall and go to cinemas. This is counter-productive to government's restrictions and containment measures.

Cinemas have complied with government regulations by providing sanitation stations, cleaning cinemas between screenings, limiting screenings from midday to 6pm as well as reducing the cinema capacity to 50%. This move makes it possible for patrons to sit clear of each other in an effort to maintain social distancing. However, as much as business needs to continue... it seems irresponsible to promote the cinema-going experience right now. One wonders just how much, if any, financial assistance government will provide venues who rely on public gathering.

As critical as it is to surviving this difficult period, it seems to go against the tide when most medical agencies are trying to advocate people stay at home. While you may maintain a safe distance from your fellow audience members, there's still a risk that someone who has been infected will still spread the easily contracted virus. As businesses, they have to look after their own interests but also need to bear in mind the greater story at play. While these methods may seem like a good idea in the short term, they could prolong the after-effects of the virus making it more difficult to curtail within months rather than weeks.

Essentially driven by crowds, we do seem to be at a critical turning point where cinemas and theatres are struggling for numbers under the current economic conditions. Many cinematic releases scheduled for this period have been postponed, delayed or shelved indefinitely. Obviously if you don't have anyone to watch the film in a time when people are actively being dissuaded from actually attending a cinema, it's not the right time to reap box office rewards.

While all of these measures are being put in place with some film productions actually being ground to a halt, it does seem that some creative thinking needs to happen in order to find workable solutions. The National Arts Festival has already announced that it will be doing things differently by going virtual this year. Scheduled to happen in a few months there's going to be a lot of chopping and changing in order to make it feasible.

Festival goers will understand why these measures are being adopted by posting the festival predominantly online, but it will be an interesting experiment for the organisers to enable events to go ahead and still make the festival financially viable. Grahamstown was renamed Makhanda and unfortunately has been struggling to deal with water pipe issues, making the infrastructure vulnerable, especially under the duress of an influx of crowds.

Many of the film exhibitors will be waiting for some word from studios and distributors. At the moment, the current release schedule has dropped down from about four to five film releases per week to two or three. The natural thinking is to take productions online with a number of film releases such as Birds of Prey and Bloodshot getting video-on-demand platforms much sooner than ordinarily possible. Already under the strain of the streaming revolution, this outbreak couldn't have come at a worse time making it much more difficult for cinemas to keep their doors open, cover their mall rental and maintain some of the loyalty and carefully built up habits of their dwindling viewership.

Being forced to stay at home naturally would lead to more people simply switching to online streaming platforms like Netflix, Showmax or Amazon Prime with the added fear of possibly contracting the virus by venturing out. With so many exhibitors, events and productions being affected, one would hope that there will be some consolidation between the affected parties. Not only are films not being screened as per usual, but the suporting functions around these releases and advertising on these platforms will also take a knock. Perhaps some sort of central, yet localised streaming network for performance and local films would make a lot of sense.

While the idea of going to the movies certainly involves much more than simply pressing play, those who are loyal and willing to support this in-between stage could find themselves subscribing to a different form of streaming service. It's a lot to ask in such a short time period, especially when each hour that goes by is so critical but it's something that affects enough people that there should be a movement towards making it a reality.