Cinema-going in Covid London

Has going to the movies become a rarefied treat?
Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 2020

It was the fortnight before Christmas.

Even away from seasonal displays, London by the river was brilliantly lit up at night. With so many offices and all West End theatres closed by the pandemic, the handful of visitors around could imagine it was all put on just for their benefit.

I got to marvel too as I had a couple of pre-booked cinema tickets to use. Amid dark winter days, only local roads and shopping centres seem to be managing to retain a semblance of their normal footfall. Central London has kept its gloss but not its crowds.

For most of the year, I have been able to stay at home for over a week without needing to venture out. I appreciate this is an option many do not have, so have never complained about wearing a mask outside the house.

“Are any cinemas or barbers open?” has been my go-to question for keeping track of changes in the rules. (Exercising at home and cutting out gyms seems permanent now.)

The answer: The year’s first lockdown saw cinemas shut at the end of March before tentatively being allowed to reopen over the summer. In London, they remained so under a three-tier system introduced in October. (Tier 3 was the most serious with cinemas shut, London was in tier 2, with some cinemas and barbers open.)

This was quickly followed by a “temporary” one-month full nationwide lockdown starting in November, loudly accompanied by promises that this would enable five rule-free days over the Christmas holiday.

Since then, in just one week in December, London went from Tier 2 (which had just re-opened cinemas) to reports of a new virus mutation and the sudden announcement London was going into Tier 3 (the day after those pre-booked tickets) followed 48 hours later by the creation of a new Tier 4 (lockdown in all but name) for London and other parts of England.

Are you keeping up? Unsurprisingly, the big studios postponed most of their scheduled blockbusters or put them straight to home release. In theory, the giants have the size and income streams to survive a fallow year, but for cinemas and staff it is an existential crisis.

The willingness of people to stream 100 million-dollar epics on small screens that aren’t even “home cinemas” was already putting the picture palace experience at risk before this year’s closures. It is certainly possible the pandemic will lead to wholesale changes to the industry’s business model. The days when one big “tentpole” hit at the box office could subsidize an entire slate of otherwise unprofitable studio releases might be over.

I know for sure this happened this year, because I made a conscious effort to “go to the pictures” whenever they were open, but seem to be one of very few tempted back. With live comedy and music in complete Covid-limbo, I mistakenly assumed lots of other people would have the same idea. On at least four occasions though, I was the only paying customer.

The biggest audience I was part of was 10, including me and my nephew for Tenet. A needlessly confusing plot I thought, much preferring the explanations for time travel given in Bill and Ted Face the Music (audience total three), a week later.

The average audience size I have seen across several different sized London venues was about four. Ironically, as everyone wore a mask (when not eating), being inside a cinema was more socially distanced than any option outside the house apart from driving a car alone.

Admittedly with fewer blockbusters on release, I was going to see more lower-budget British films or “about to go on a streaming service” fare, like The Trial of the Chicago 7. (audience total six).

I will not bore you with a complete list, but the last film I saw before the first lockdown was Misbehaviour, an entertaining feature about the historic feminist protest at the Miss World contest in 1970. (Sold-out audience though not everyone turned up).

The best film I saw in a cinema this year must be the black and white version of Parasite (audience size me plus the staff) which I had missed the first time round and now want to see adapted to a setting in Dhaka. (Steve McQueen’s Small Axe five film series ties for quality especially Mangrove and Lover’s Rock, but I watched those on the BBC.)

The best films I only went to see because blockbusters had been pulled were Rocks for its naturalistic acting (audience total four) and the White Riot documentary (audience total two) about rock against racism.

By the way, the December film was Mank (audience total nine) about the writing of Citizen Kane and looks like being the last trip possible to a London cinema for months ahead.

It is a grim outlook for such a global mass entertainment industry.

Doubtless there will be a revival, but trends look bleak. They are also deeply unfair for a sector which around the world has kept ticket prices down and improved legroom across the board. Be it a football match or a West End play, cinema is a bargain with much more comfortable seats.

Perhaps this was a glimpse of the cinemas of Christmas future.

An artform perfected in the 20th century that has reached its limits, while big budget film production moves on to merge with virtual reality computer games.

Going to the pictures may become a rarefied treat like going to an expensive play or opera.

Maybe it already has, and I have only just noticed.