As all of us are painfully aware, cinemas have been one of the many casualties of the pandemic lock down. Although it goes without saying that me not being able to go to the cinema is the very definition of a First world problem compared to the loss of income, social contact, health and life that so many have suffered this year, it is still worth saying that it has been difficult to not be able to enjoy films on the big screen. It is of course also important to note that cinemas and theatres are businesses like any other and so the lock down has resulted in loss of income and loss of jobs for many within those industries too.
Without very much at all in the way of new releases available to screen (the much-documented postponements of Tenet, No Time To Die et al continue) there didn’t seem to be much value in cinemas re-opening, even when some of the lock down restrictions were eased. What is the point of opening your doors when you have nothing to show? Even a release as big as Mulan is now reported to be shifting to a VOD release through Disney+ (but subscribers have to pay to watch it, on top of their usual monthly subscription fee) – is the length of this pandemic lock down going to forever change our viewing habits and consign picture houses to the history books? One desperately hopes not.
It was therefore with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I recently attended my local Showcase cinema to watch The Matrix. Showcase Cinemas were among the first to re-open and although there were only one or two genuinely new releases available, they seem to have realised that if they carefully chose the films they made available, customers might be tempted back for a big-screen experience. Jurassic Park, La La Land, Back to the Future, The Lord of the Rings, Pulp Fiction, Grease, Inception, The Greatest Showman, Mamma Mia, Dirty Dancing and Aliens have all featured at my local Showcase multiplex over the past couple of weeks and although it’s understandable that for a variety of reasons many people just don’t feel comfortable returning to cinemas, at least it gave those of us who wanted to go along something to enjoy. Yes, I have The Matrix on DVD. Yes, I have seen it a dozen times. Yes, I saw it at the cinema in 1999. But having not seen the inside of a cinema for almost 4 months, I can’t tell you how amazing it was to see the BBFC logo, the green-tinted WB logo and then the cascading Matrix code on a massive screen.
With safety concerns front and centre for Showcase, you couldn’t turn up and buy tickets at the box office – we had to order them online and show the scan code when we arrived. No pick n mix or popcorn, though you could pre-order drinks to collect (self-serve) on arrival. Face masks were mandatory as you arrived and moved around the communal areas and hand sanitiser dispensers were dotted around the foyer and corridors. When the film finished it was a case of exiting at the side or rear of the cinema rather than passing back through the lobby and the seating (which in fairness is already fairly well spaced out) was blocked out at the booking stage so you are always well away from other punters.
How was The Matrix? Well, of course, it was every bit as amazing as ever. Thrilling, jaw-dropping, compelling, deep and rich. And the experience of visiting the cinema? Overall it was fine. The staff were friendly and relaxed, everyone seemed to understand that it was a treat to be able to get back to the cinema and so followed the rules faithfully, the tickets were very reasonably priced and the only real downside was that with such small numbers in attendance and it being an older film, there wasn’t that buzz of anticipation, or the collective noise of an invested full house engaging with a great film. It’s not the same as it was (what is these days?) but it was fun and familiar enough to not feel weird. And I am left hopeful that as new releases begin to trickle back into the listings (Black Water: Abyss, Unhinged, Proxima, Make Up and An American Pickle are among the first out of the blocks), as we all wear our masks and take sensible precautions and as Hollywood hopefully sees the value and wisdom of opening their big releases in territories where they can be enjoyed, big screen experiences will become more commonplace, as we all continue to stay safe.