Cinema is back as the country unlocks more, but would you be comfortable watching a movie in a closed room? Seven months after being forced to close by governments due to COVID-19, cinemas reopened in parts of India this week under “Unlock 5.0”. Many states, including Maharashtra – home to Bollywood and the highest number of coronavirus cases – have said no at this time. But even if you have the opportunity to experience the joys of the big screen, should you take it? After all, going to the movies is an activity that involves strangers congregating inside, people taking off their masks to drink and eat. Sounds like a horror movie in 2020.
For what it’s worth, movie theaters have a list of legally binding precautions they must follow where they’re allowed to open. Safety protocols are based on five principles: face masks, zero contact, physical distancing, temperature checks and relentless disinfection. Speaking of Tenet, the Christopher Nolan film, the only major movie to be released during the pandemic, still doesn’t have a release date in India, and it probably won’t arrive until November. Most precautions are based on science and what we know about COVID-19, but there are issues.
The central government has allowed cinemas to reopen at 50% capacity, and every state has apparently accepted this, without thinking about how they are coping with the pandemic. By comparison, the US state of California has a four-tier system that dictates capacity. If a county has 4 to 7 daily new cases per 100,000 people, movie theaters can open with 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is lower. By comparison, among Indian states that are reopening cinemas, Delhi leads with 17 new daily cases per 100,000 people.
Cinemas are enforcing the 50% cap using checkerboard seating, which means every alternate seat will be vacated to maintain physical distancing. A representative from India’s biggest cinema chain PVR Cinemas said families can sit together and an empty seat will be left on either side of them. But what about the seats directly behind or in front of them? Does COVID-19 only travel horizontally now? And it’s not like the gap of a seat makes sense to begin with. Not a single seat, including the fancy reclining ones, is six feet wide.
Not that six feet is enough when you have a virus that apparently spreads through aerosols. Put it in an air-conditioned environment and you now have a virus that can travel much further, studies have shown. Of course, the government also has guidelines for AC temperatures (24-30°C with 40-70% relative humidity) that are based on studies, and PVR has partnered with a startup called Magneto to install air purification units that emit ultraviolet rays. to kill the virus.
A high-tech solution could make watching a movie safer. Magneto founder Himanshu Agarwal told me that it is better than traditional air purification because it does not turn into a secondary source of infection since it also kills the virus. But he admitted that no system is foolproof. And here is the problem.
Additionally, theaters are free to sell concessions – food and drink – when they reopen across India. They are their biggest earner after all. This seems counter-intuitive to the always-hidden rule. Allowing moviegoers to eat or drink is literally the biggest incentive for people to take their masks off. Temperature tests only identify those who already have symptoms. Studies vary widely on this, but between 20 and 80 percent of COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic.
Medical associations [JPG] consider “going to the movies” among the highest risks, alongside gyms, buffets, and theme parks. Dr Prabhakaran Dorairaj, an epidemiologist who works at the Public Health Foundation of India, noted that people are not wearing masks “as per specification”. I look at you, your bare noses, and the mask resting on your chins. And who’s going to watch people when it’s dark? Dorairaj added: “I personally would wait until at least March/April next year when the pandemic should recede or until the vaccine is universally available.”
Either way, it’s not like there’s anything worth watching right now. Cinemas are reopening by re-releasing films aged between eight months and a year and a half. The only noteworthy new film is the Dave Bautista-directed action comedy My Spy, whose reviews are hardly encouraging. And there’s nothing on the schedule. Producers aren’t sure people will feel comfortable walking out and into a cinema, and that’s why Bollywood movies keep heading to streaming. Last week, Amazon Prime Video announced its second slate, featuring Sara Ali Khan and Varun Dhawan.
It could very easily turn into a vicious cycle, where the lack of new hot movies and audiences feed each other. It’s happened before elsewhere. Cinemas in the United States (except for those in New York and Los Angeles) opened a few months ago, with Nolan’s Tenet billed as the savior of cinema. But it turned out to be the opposite. Since its release in early September, Tenet hasn’t even cracked $50 million in the United States. It’s much better done internationally, for what it’s worth.
In response to this, capricious Hollywood studios have all delayed their big releases. And in reaction to this, some American and British cinema chains have closed. This could easily happen in India too. Cinemas have already gone through a particularly difficult time during the pandemic, but it would be even worse if they had to close their doors again, considering the money spent on all the COVID-19 safety protocols. The big screen is vital not only for the industry, but also for the public. Cinema is back, but if its return isn’t handled well, its future could be unrecognizable.