In this time of isolation, one misses the smile of a helpful stranger on the street, the noises of a bustling office or a busy marketplace, the smell of butter popcorn permeating through a quiet auditorium.
Cinemas, restaurants, and malls have been closed for 4-6 weeks. Rightfully so, as health, safety and trepidations of spreading COVID-19 transcend any benefits of social gatherings. With the rise of streaming services and online content, the pandemic worries cinema owners, filmmakers and avid cinemagoers never like before. Growing fears of social spaces and delays in the release dates of movies (Sooryavanshi, 83), make us wonder how the cinema-going experience will change - or if the comfort of sitting in a closed room with many people will ever return.
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, which 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 (1920-40s), and technological shifts (TV in the 50s, VCR in the 80s). 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 have 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.
This is how the PVR chain imagines the near future:
1) Social distancing will continue. The WHO has advised a one-metre distance between individuals to help prevent the spread of the virus. To facilitate this, fewer shows 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) would prevent any selections of adjacent seats by separate groups or parties. In the foyer and washrooms, the addition of 'one-metre' floor stickers and glass barriers at the Box Office and Concessions would guide customers and employees on standing apart. These would be easier to navigate in non-peak hours during the week.
2) Limiting "touch points": this would be done not only by encouraging digital payments but also by implementing QR codes on F&B packaging so customers can scan and pay using their mobile devices. Cinemas would also operate with a truncated menu so the focus remains on packaged staples (popcorn, Pepsi, nachos) and core eatables (wraps, burgers, pizzas). Deploying popcorn and Pepsi-vending machines would also facilitate self-service, limit interactions between people, and reduce the chances of queuing at the concession. At the entrance, security would no longer conduct body checks using HHMDS (Handheld Metal Detectors) but would instead resort to contactless scanning. Moreover, the baggage check counters would also be converted to self-service and sanitized at thirty-minute intervals.
3) A prevalence of health checkpoints and sanitization: cinema employees would ensure an adequate stock and availability of hand sanitizers at all interaction points; furthermore, auditoriums would undergo deep cleaning via the ULV sanitation process (Ultra Low Volume that can provide an anti-bacterial layer of up to 30 days), air purification through ducts, and anti-bacterial films on all door handles. Additionally, temperatures of all entering customers would be checked at entry points, and sensor-based taps, flushes, soap dispensers would also be installed.
4) Finally, the above necessitates strong communication and highly trained staff. Cinema employees themselves would go through health check-ups, medical check-ins with doctors, and training on wearing masks and gloves. Employees would also be prepared to handle customers who display symptoms and answer all questions from customers on cinema sanitization, the health of other customers, and staff hygiene. Most importantly, posters, videos, digital screens would display reminders for customers and employees to use sanitizers and maintain distance from other patrons.
The post-COVID era of movie-going will require collective efforts from audiences, production houses, cinema owners and the central and state governments; the revival of the movie-going 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, elicited by watching movies in cinemas, that we crave and that our future will require us to mimic.
(Nayana Bijli is currently working in PVR on the conceptualization and execution of Cinema Reimagined - a pilot project at PVR, and on a specialized mental health HR initiative.)
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