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Is It Time to Go Back to the Movies?

Cinemas have recently opened in South Africa under the banner of a campaign to get movie patrons back into theatres. After more than 5 months, it's been a major setback for exhibitors who not only have to absorb several months of income loss but also retrain their customers to make movie-going a regular occurrence again. Things have slowly been returning to a new type of normal with many going back to their place of employment. Strict hand-washing, mask-wearing and safety protocols have been implemented at places of public gathering with some stores maintaining a strict policy around the number of customers allowed in the store at one time.

The same is happening at cinemas where movie-goers are being given a series of safety protocols to try and reduce risk of infection. Cleaning cinemas inbetween screenings, hand-washing, cashless ticketing and enforced social distancing within cinemas are making it possible for these businesses to get back into gear. If companies and restaurants are being allowed to continue operation why shouldn't cinemas also have this right? It's going to take some time for patrons to feel safe enough to share a closed cinema with others, but this has to happen in order for cinemas to survive. The theatre business is already under pressure thanks to advances in home entertainment technology and the adoption of streaming services, which have gained more ground thanks to the enforced stay-at-home lockdown.

It seems ironic that cinemas are finally operating the way I would want to attend public screenings and yet I remain unmoved. Having fewer people in the cinema, maintaining social distancing... it's one way you can actually sit back, relax and just enjoy the movie. Despite being free from being kicked in the back, wrestling for arm rest dominance or having people sidestep their way past you without stepping on your toes... it's still going to take time for me to return to cinemas. Being out of the cinema loop, I've had a chance to think. Since society and technology is making it feasible to do life remotely, it's becoming acceptable for people to do meetings, work and play from home. I'm wanting to continue reviewing film in this capacity by way of streaming, pay-per-view or online screeners.

Watching movies from home is just more efficient for a movie critic in my position. Avoiding traffic, seeing the movie start on time, viewing with the ability to pause and rewind, getting the chance to scribe notes about your assessment without int interrupting other audience members... it's just easier and more efficient, even if I'm missing out on the complimentary popcorn, soda water and trailers. The biggest argument against reviewing film this way is that movies are designed for big screen viewing and as big as 42 inches sounds, it can't compete with a wall-sized screen. Moreover, getting a read on the audience's responses can help you make a better assessment. Being in a cinema full of film critics, this only really happens in the foyer - unless the room is mostly comprised of Marvel or Star Wars fans.

As a movie critic I want the film industry to recover, box office numbers to escalate and things to get back on track. However, if I'm not going to cinemas myself... I can't support the movie-going experience in good conscience. We were in lockdown when there were less than 100 cases of Covid-19. Aware of several confirmed cases in my immediate circle of friends and family, it just seems irresponsible to take any unnecessary risks at this stage. The industry has been brought to its knees and obviously cinemas are there to provide a public service to those who are willing to attend in this current format and stage of lockdown. As with mask-wearing, it's a contentious issue across the globe that concerns human rights and the consideration of the health and safety of others. I'm not going to fight cinemas reopening but I don't think it's safe to go back to the movies yet.

There hasn't been enough creativity and unity around intermediary solutions. It may seem overly cautious to some but how can cinemas even justify the facilitation and management of these entertainment amenities when they're not operating at full capacity? Nu Metro are only opening over weekends, which seems like a smart move to keep things ticking over during the peak times. The Galileo Open Air Cinema has branched out into drive-in theatres, which are making a healthy resurgence. Disney have made Mulan available to their Disney+ subscribers at an additional surcharge and this seems like the way to go. Other films affected by the pandemic have jumped to viewing platforms quicker. I love that the Labia Theatre in Cape Town opened an online fifth screen to their patrons for pay-per-view over the lockdown at Labia Home Screen.

It may seem counter-intuitive to an exhibitor business model but evolution and diversification seems like the right direction for now. It does seem like confirmed cases have begun the downward turn and that the curve will be flattening out. I know I'll only feel safe doing anything in a public space when the pandemic has been contained. If people in my immediate circle are still contracting the coronavirus and ICU nurses are struggling to come to terms with the effects of the pandemic, as much as I love movies... it seems insane to pretend everything's okay.

Much like writer-director Christopher Nolan, who recently released Tenet to cinemas, I want to preserve the big screen experience. It's a cultural phenomenon, a piece of pop culture history that needs to survive. So I'm going to keep supporting the film industry as much as I can from the sideline. Right now I just can't see myself in a cinema... even if it's just me.