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Here’s what it’s like watching a movie in theaters right now

As COVID-19 quarantine restrictions ease and theaters reopen, the problem might be other patrons, not safety precautions

Photo illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

Over the last decade-plus, modern movie cineplexes have grown quieter and quieter. These monuments celebrating Hollywood grandeur have been overshadowed by the lower costs, greater choice, and creature comforts of a home-theater setup and streaming services. But after months of American theaters largely being shut down as part of the COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, theaters have regained a certain amount of cachet, and people are clamoring to return to them — if it’s safe. A May EDO survey found 75 percent of respondents would return to theaters, if certain safety measures were enforced. Problem is, just as most theaters don’t enforce bans on cell-phone use during movies, they won’t be able to enforce safety standards if moviegoers won’t cooperate. And that makes the immediate future of theaters look pretty bleak.

Like so many American businesses, movie houses have been hard-hit by the pandemic. The supply chain has come to an nearly absolute grinding halt. New productions have been shut down, and if no new movies are being made, new movies can’t be shown. The cost of rent alone for movie theaters’ high-priced, massive showhouses can run even the largest of chains into the ground financially. So as more states move toward re-opening, theaters are being left to determine their futures with limited new product available. Depending on geography, some will chance it. Others won’t.

Malco Theaters are taking the risk. With more than 30 theaters and about 340 screens, the Memphis, Tennessee-based chain has begun re-opening certain locations in the American South. About a third of its houses have re-opened so far, including some in Arkansas, a state which has seen its COVID-19 caseload rise consistently over the course of June 2020. Northwest Arkansas — a local colloquial term for the cities of Bentonville (home to Walmart), Springdale (home to Tyson Foods), Fayetteville (home to the University of Arkansas), Rogers, and their surrounding small towns — boasts a population just above 500,000. There are three Malcos in the area and one AMC, the largest cinema chain in North America, which just announced its plan to push back its nationwide reopening plan. For the moment, Malco’s lone competition in the market is the 112 Drive-In in Fayetteville, where classic box-office hits have been the norm since it re-opened in late spring.

But in Arkansas, there isn’t much industry to grab. The Razorback Cinema Grill and IMAX in Fayetteville and the Rogers Towne Cinema Grill were the first two NWA indoor theaters to re-open in the coronavirus age. They are the proverbial guinea pigs. As cinema fans wonder what moviegoing will be like in the COVID-19 age, these theaters are a clear example not just of how the staff at cineplexes will respond to safety restrictions, but how patrons will respond as well.

At the Razorback, the current slate of features almost seems designed to limit public participation as the theaters relaunch. Pre-pandemic titles Sonic the Hedgehog, The Invisible Man, The Hunt, and I Still Believe are back. Trolls World Tour is making its big-screen debut. The High Note and Irresistible are the only two new releases on the docket. Not exactly the type of cinematic fare that was drawing big crowds even before the national health crisis struck. The IMAX screen is showing Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the smaller auditoriums have consumer-friendly classics like Back to the Future, Jaws, E.T., and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

On Friday, I sat in the parking lot, eyeballing both the number of free parking spaces around me and the ticket-purchasing app on my phone, battling with myself over how many other theatergoers I was willing to share air with. My theater is requiring masks (the yellow signs on the door put REQUIRED in all caps) except for eating and drinking. But anyone who has been in public for more than five minutes over the past month understands that some people consider that requirement more of a suggestion. The theater’s skeleton-crew staff, mostly teenagers and twentysomethings, were clearly going to have a difficult time enforcing it. Ultimately, with a total of 17 cars in the parking lot and seven other seats purchased in my theater, I decided, five minutes before the 1 p.m. showtime, to re-watch Raiders.

All but one of the theater’s entry doors were cordoned off. A young, masked employee waited three feet inside that door to take my temperature. In the pre-COVID days, that would have been an awkward violation of privacy. But with other businesses in my region now doing the same, this has become a common enough process. She placed a no-touch thermometer near my forehead, waited a moment for a beep, then told me, “You’re all set.”

I bought my ticket at the counter instead of on the app, to get a feel for the no-contact process, which was simple enough: I told the employee at the register what I wanted to see, then slid my debit card into the machine and took my ticket. Since I’d showed up late and I wanted to see the movie, I didn’t linger in the lobby, still adorned with posters for movies that were supposed to be released weeks or months ago. None of the dates had been changed — these were the same marketing materials from before the quarantines started.

The dated lobby marketing materials felt like a throwback, and not just to March, when cinemas closed. Gen-Xers and older Millennials have been the most fervent theater-goers in the home-theater age. Their dollars built the wings of shopping malls and standalone multiplexes that used to be the norm, and now seem like relics. Seeing old dates on movies that may never get the big-screen treatment was a reminder of the days when cardboard cutouts and posters behind glass were the primary way to learn about upcoming movies, and they tended to linger in theaters past their usefulness date. Not a single customer was visible.

In the auditorium, those seven other viewers sat waiting. In the Fandango app, every other row was marked “unavailable,” but in the theater, nothing was cordoned off, and there was no effort to prevent seat-switching. Still, patrons appeared to be socially distancing themselves. They were skirting the mask requirement, though. The two couples in my eyesight didn’t put theirs on the whole time. The couple behind me didn’t have theirs on when I entered, either. The only other solo attendee, besides me, did keep his on for the duration. Given the size of the room and limited headcount, though, I never felt particularly unsafe, though the thought never left my mind throughout the film, either.

The weekend’s shows were busier, and I avoided them, but I went back on Monday, this time for the critically panned Irresistible. This time, I had to purchase my ticket at the concession stand, which was newly equipped with the increasingly ubiquitous plastic partitions that separate employees from patrons. Concessions were mostly handled in familiar ways, by masked and gloved workers who tag-teamed the order. One who was previously cleaning the lobby with a spray bottle and rags scooped the popcorn, per usual, out of an open communal bin and into serving tubs. One took payment while another poured drinks.

The theater experience for a new release wasn’t any different from the IMAX setup from a few days previous, except that the traditional auditorium didn’t have rows blocked off on the advance ticketing app. But then, the layout of this theater is already geared toward social distancing, with wide gaps between rows, separated with nearly waist-high partitions.

Before the projector flickered on, I kept wondering whether this would be my last year of seeing movies in the theater. While I personally felt safe enough with such a small crowd, and appreciated the safety protocols put in place, it’s hard to see how smaller independents and chains will survive showing several months of The Goonies or High Note. Even ardent theater-goers like myself who have seen 250 movies in the last two years in the cinema (in Arkansas, no less), won’t return en masse until they have access to two things: better product, and better safety standards.

And then there’s the question of whether half-filled theaters still can be a draw, given how much theater-going is about the communal experience: the collective laughter during comedies. The communal jumps and hollers during horror pictures, or the gasps during action sequences. That experience is dimmed if we’re all watching movies we’ve seen before, and when theaters can’t legally pack a house with eager fans. And the escapism that’s always been part of theaters’ immersive environment is hard to achieve when patrons are constantly wondering whether the air we’re breathing will harm us.

In my theater, the lights dimmed and a Candyman trailer began. The two people in the row behind me, unmasked, stopped talking. A trailer for A Quiet Place 2 came after, then A Promising Young Woman, which still listed its release date as April. Most memorable was the trailer for Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated next feature. Nolan is, insiders say, requiring a theatrical release for the film, starring John David Washington, but its release date keeps being pushed back. No such date was listed at the trailer’s conclusion. Only three words, accompanied by the ubiquitous Nolan “whomp” each time a word hit the screen: Coming. To. Theaters.

Maybe.