Local Moviegoers Cautiously Optimistic About Increased Cinema Seating Capacity
On 23 September, Singapore’s multi-ministerial COVID-19 task force announced an easing of measures in response to low community cases. These include the resumption of business-oriented work events, worship services in a limited capacity, and the expansion of cinema capacities.
Singapore cinemas first reopened in July after a four month-long closure, marked by a record-setting opening day for the highly-anticipated Peninsula. While recent blockbusters Tenet and Mulan both had strong showings, box office numbers remained understandably low.
Together with the limited seating capacities, much of this could be chalked up to the reduced number of film screenings as part of cinemas’ cleaning and disinfecting routines. The revised measures, kicking in today, may ease some of these necessary strains, but that might require additional efforts from cinemas to fully capitalise on them.
Cinema halls with more than 300 seats will now be allowed to admit up to 150 patrons, an increase from the previous 50-patron limit. Halls will be divided into three zones of 50 patrons each, with safe distancing measures, such as a 1 metre distance between groups, still in place.
For polytechnic student Benjamin Yam, who caught Tenet in early September, the measures may not be enough to entice him back into the cinemas soon without any upcoming films that interest him.
This is a sentiment shared by Jesper Tan, a personal tax associate in his 20s, where the main factors for a return would be the films shown and their necessity for a cinematic experience. He explained, “In the age of digitalisation, it is easy to switch on Netflix and catch a film on your cozy sofa instead of heading down to the cinemas. Movie tickets do not come cheap so it boils down to the opportunity cost of having a cinematic experience.”
The global pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges for film productions. From Wonder Woman 1984 to The French Dispatch, studios have chosen to delay their tentpole films for either the upcoming holiday season or for the following year.
This has created a present drought of sure-fires hits that cinemas will have to ride through for at least the month of October, with the next big-ticket film scheduled to be Bond film No Time To Die in mid-November. However, the Jackie Chan starring Vanguard and animated film Jiang Zi Ya: Legend of Deification – both buzzed-about films in theatres now – may surprise with impressive showings.
Recent decisions by some studios to premiere films online, such as Trolls World Tour and Mulan, will become a key trend that cinemas will have to grapple with long after COVID-19. For now, online premieres have the key advantage of completely bypassing safety concerns.
Before the Circuit Breaker, Shandy Tan, who is in her 20s working in the fashion industry, would head to the cinemas once a week. However, these visits have halted even after the reopenings. She expressed, “I am just a little afraid of the spread of COVID. Still, I feel that [the new measures] are good for supporting cinema owners in recovery.”
Housewife Mrs Tan shared similar worries. “I would like to go out and watch a movie as the idea is exciting,” she said, “It would definitely feel like things are going back to the norm but only it’s actually safe. If it’s at a small theatre, it still won’t feel safe.”
She also voiced concerns about whether seating arrangements could accommodate family seating without having to separate between them, the maintenance in cinemas from underuse, ventilation, and cleaning measures. Among the respondents, there were also questions about whether patrons could still eat and drink during the movies.
These are concerns that Singapore’s cinemas have responded to on their websites and social media pages. However, given the understandable confusion brought by extraordinary conditions, it seems that there is still a disconnect between cinemas and concerned customers who do want to catch a film soon.
In general, the sentiment among the four moviegoers was that the increase in seating capacity is a positive step forward. Recalling his recent visit to the cinema, Benjamin, who usually heads to the cinema with his friends, expressed that his main worry was being able to grab seats. “I feel that cinemas increasing their seating capabilities will be very beneficial especially for those who are busy on the weekdays and only have the weekends to spend time with family and friends,” he said.
Jesper added, “It is heartening to see businesses having the opportunity to operate at a higher capacity. If proper social distancing measures and sanitisation efforts are in place, we could very well expect more to patronise the cinemas. I believe that catching the latest blockbusters while addressing the largest dilemma of sweet or salted popcorn is definitely a great way to spend quality time, especially for families with young children.”
Even before the pandemic, cinemas have had to wrestle with a sea change of trends and viewing habits to stay afloat – namely the rise of streaming services when compared to an unbudging ticket price point. The drought of marquee films during this season – at least until the holidays – will understandably affect ticket sales here but this may also present key opportunities for growth in other directions.
To speak plainly and frankly, weekends might just get boring enough to push moviegoers to go beyond their usual palettes; independent cinema The Projector and its excellent selection of international arthouse films are perhaps best positioned for this trend. Film festivals happening in the near future, such as the Singapore Chinese Film Festival and the fully-online Perspectives Film Festival, may see a spike in interest as well.
As for pandemic-specific challenges, cinemas might have to do even more to instill confidence for would-be patrons. Together with even clearer infographics and information, more contests and giveaways might have exponential dividends during this period. Concerns may be allayed once word-of-mouth about first-hand experiences in the cinemas spread, which could ultimately lead to a full use of the new measures.
It will be exciting to see how Singapore’s cinemas navigate the challenges of the pandemic age and beyond. With community cases at a low and with the continued vigilance of cinemas, Singapore may be among the first countries to see movie-going experiences that are both safe and long-missed indications of normalcy return.
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(Banner image credit: Golden Village)