The return of cinemas: How movie theatres are adapting to the pandemic

(Courtesy of Riddhi Jani)

We can all agree this pandemic made us understand the true meaning of boredom. Streaming sites were our saviours — put some Netflix on, rewatch a classic, or explore a new show. They became a staple in quarantine life — well, mine at least. As restrictions eased, malls and restaurants finally opened back up, while theatres were among the last to reconnect with the public. Now that theatres are open, my mini-projector has started collecting dust. 

With the releases of Dune and Eternals, theatres are packed — but for how long? Will theatres make a comeback or is streaming at home too convenient to give up? What’s more cost efficient for students? How has this pandemic changed the movie-making and watching experience?

I think I speak for a lot of people when I say Netflix made quarantine more bearable. Disney+, Crave, and Apple TV helped keep us from falling down the rabbit hole of at-home DIYs. According to Statistics Canada, almost half of Canadians have streamed content such as “Netflix, Crave, the news, concerts, or fitness videos” more often since the start of the pandemic. 

The streaming world had replaced the theatres while they were closed during this pandemic, but will they continue to do so? As of July 16 Ontario moved into phase three, which permitted the reopening of theatres, and people have begun to bring themselves back to in-person movie watching,

Melissa Pressacco, director of communications for Cineplex, says, “It’s clear that movie-lovers have missed the escape of the big screen experience and are returning to the theatre — as evidenced by the recent success of films like Venom: Let There Be Carnage, No Time to Die, and Dune.” 

When looking to the future of theatre-exclusive films, Pressacco comments that they are seeing restored commitment from studios around exclusive theatrical windows. 

“We’re always in close discussion with our studio partners and the belief is that they will keep an exclusive theatrical release window. We recognize that guests are craving the collective cinematic experience that they can only get in a theatre, one that can’t be matched at home.”

The pandemic has forcibly changed a lot of things — handshakes will never be the same — but how has it transformed the theatre experience? 

Associate professor in the department of cinema and media arts Michael Zryd says, “There’s no question that the ecology of live movie watching has changed with the rapid rise of streaming, which was accelerated by the temporary closure of theatres due to COVID-19. I suspect there will be some contraction and repurposing of some film theatres but history would indicate the industry will adapt.” 

He also brought attention to a similar occurrence in the film industry’s history. Zryd states, “When television — an early kind of ‘streaming’ — appeared in the 1950s, it affected film but the industry quickly adapted, including creating widescreen formats and improvements in sound and theatre design.”

Janine Marchessault, professor and graduate program director in the department of cinema and media arts, shares a similar opinion on the topic. Marchessault remarks that “the movie-going experience has been forever transformed by the lockdown. But this shift away from theatre-going to a diversity of screen media experiences has been eating away at the exhibition system for over a decade.” 

Marchessault continues, “What will remain as things open up again are the blockbuster experiences — large format films and big special effects blockbuster films that need to be seen on the big screen.” 

Zryd expands on this idea by saying the passion to see films on the big screen will not disappear. “It’s important to remember that the theatre-watching experience was never universal and was always just one option for cultural experience alongside performing arts, music, fairgrounds, art galleries and museums, or just curling up at home to read a good book.”

Movies are visual presentations of someone’s thoughts and ideas. A book allows you to visualize the events for yourself, but movies allow you to see someone else’s perception of those same events. theatres add to this experience by creating an environment — one you don’t necessarily get at home — that allows you to truly appreciate the film. 

Are students rushing back to the theatres?

When looking at the future, Abeeshan Arulnesan, third year environmental studies student at York, says that they aren’t worried about the future of streaming in the film industry. “The advancement to streaming is just another evolution in the film industry.”

Arulnesan continues that while they do have some concerns as to how the future of filmmaking will look for up and coming filmmakers, they still think the future “is bright.”

COVID-19 forced many of us to alter our everyday experiences, and the movie theatre experience for student audiences was no exception to these changes. 

Siblings Aaliyah, Jolypha, and Jalen Williams all went to movie theatres after lockdown and were able to experience the shifts of in-person cinemas. Aaliyah, a 2019 graduate of the Centennial College police foundations program, shares that her theatre experience was still enjoyable, but was quite different with the implemented COVID-19 regulations. 

“I would say the theatre didn’t drop the ball of expectations. It was clean, the sound was amazing, and the position of seats from the actual screen was good. The whole atmosphere of it was very welcoming and it felt comfortable.” Aaliyah notes that “because of the pandemic, it’s not as comfortable as it used to be.” They elaborate, “You had to wear a mask and the theatre could only fit less than half capacity. You couldn’t even eat inside; it’s very limiting.” 

However, Jolypha, a 2016 graduate of George Brown College’s child youth care and developmental service worker program, explains that they quite enjoyed the COVID-19 restrictions when watching Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings earlier this year. 

“Personally, I don’t mind the COVID-19 restrictions in the theatre. I honestly kind of hope that they keep them because sometimes when you’re in a theatre sitting so close to people, they like to lean their chairs — especially the VIP chairs — further back.

“So with the restrictions it makes it easy for people to do that — you don’t have to worry about turning around like yelling at someone like ‘hey, watch your feet!’ You have your personal space,” Jolypha continues. 

Jalen, a third-year psychology student at York, is adamant on upholding the in-theatre experience, as he comments, “Your spouse, your friends, and the whole group is engaged in this narrative you’re watching, whereas at home you’re distracted by your phone or whatever else you’re watching. So being in the cinema is preferable.

“I think these industries were built for you to just have an exposure, whereas at home it is laid back and chill. It might be bright outside or in your living room, which kind of detracts from the whole experience.”

Aaliyah says she is split between streaming and in-theatre films. “For older movies, stuff that you wanna rewatch, and things that you kinda want to see at a leisurely pace, I would probably do streaming. Then something like Justice League or Spider-Man, those big ticket items feel so much better in theatres.” 

Aaliyah notes that this leisurely pace can be taken away when at the theatres, “You just feel like you’re just shuffled into your seats, you sit, watch, and are shuffled out. It just takes away from the experience, even with friends.”

Arjelmaigne Alcantara, a 2015 graduate of York’s nursing program, enjoys the in-person experience of film watching. “I love going out, getting ready, the feeling of just sitting down, and then actually waiting and seeing the actors. It’s a whole different experience versus, you know, staying-in putting on your favourite PJ’s and being around your favourite people — it’s a whole different experience.” 

Jalen says he doesn’t watch movies that often, which makes in-person theatres more cost effective for him. ”Streaming servers are kind of a waste of time, or I should say a waste of money, because I watch movies here and there. With movie theatres, I can save money because I go maybe once or twice a month. I’d rather pay for the theatres. It’s a better experience and is really easy for me. Plus, it saves money because I’m not really watching movies constantly.”

This pandemic has taught us that being adaptable is crucial. Many theatres have adapted to everything that was thrown at them, as they are now open and seem to be in it for the long run with studios helping out with the “only in theatres” films. Cinemas seem to be helping young people’s pockets by keeping discounted Tuesdays and giving their members special offers. 

It truly depends on the type of person you are in regards to if COVID-19 theatre regulations will affect your experience. So stop by your local theatre, catch a movie, and see if sitting back in the cinema’s seats is still for you. 

About the Author

By Kellissa Greene


Interested in becoming a contributor? Check out our Get Involved Page


Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ck B

AMAZING!! it’s so weird to be back in the theatres and it’s a mind blowing experience during the pandemic.