On Friday, July 17th, I returned to the cinema! I’ve been waiting for this day since the middle of March when movie theatres closed during the COVID-19 shutdown. From the moment I learned that the theatres around me (Tampa & Orlando) would begin reopening in mid-July, I was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to once again sit in a recliner in an auditorium in front of a giant screen with surround sound to experience the magic of motion pictures as cannot be replicated, even in the very best at-home VOD experiences. The smells, the sights, the people (in their respective masks), and the energy all help to create the immersive cinematic experience that has been a staple of motion pictures since the earliest days of film distribution. And what better way to return than seeing E.T., Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and Jurassic Park over the weekend at the Universal Orlando Cinemark at CityWalk. The former two, I had never seen on the big screen before, and I never turn down an opportunity to see the latter. There is a magic to arriving at the box office to pickup your ticket, walking inside, being greeted by a smiling face and directed to your auditorium where you take a seat to watch a movie at the exact same time as other others in attendance. You will laugh together, cry together, scream, together. That “togetherness” creates an infectious energy in the room that transcends the mind and heart. Watching movies at the Universal Orlando Cinemark also provided me with the ability to watch the movies then ride them! Both E.T. and Jurassic Park are attractions at Universal Orlando (while T2-3D is a former attraction), so I could watch the movie then experience the ride! How cool is that?!? Although some of you live in areas that have not reopened movie theatres, others do live near cinemas that have reopened; and I hope this article serves as encouragement to leave the couch in your living room behind, and return to the cinema!
Friday, July 17th couldn’t come quickly enough for me. As soon as I heard that was the day that movie theatres would begin reopening, I was primed to return to the cinema to properly experience motion pictures. It’d been nearly four months to the day since I had watched a new movie. Yes, I know what you’re thinking–why not just watch “new” movies on streaming services? That’s one band wagon that I refused to climb aboard. Although I could write an entire article on just why I don’t care to watch “intended to be theatrical release” movies at home, in short and among other reasons, I am far more at ease and comfortable sitting by myself in an auditorium than I am sitting alone in my own living room. And it’s not just the temptation to look at my phone or have my MacBook close by. Watching “theatrical” first run movies on VOD at home lacks the experiential factor that comes along with theatrical movies, not to mention the lack of structure at home. Also the sheer number of films to choose from can be quite daunting; I prefer knowing that there are 1-3 new movies coming out most Thursday nights. When I wasn’t attending press screenings, I would watch whatever was new on Thursday evenings. VOD doesn’t offer that. With the VOD platform, there are dozens of titles that release weekly. It’s overwhelming. Plus, after-movie conversations with the staff at the movie theatre or friends are so much fun! Watching at home deprives us of the opportunity to share in discussions and heated debates over what we just watched together for the first time.
This article is about my experience at the cinema; but in case you’re wondering, Universal Orlando Resort has been a model company in our post-shutdown economy and world. Disney World: we are going to open in July; Universal Orlando: hold my beer—and we’ll do it better. From the passholder days on June 3-4 (to which ALL UOAPs were able to attend) to today, Universal is keeping guests safe whilst delivering the magic and opening up the gateway to epic adventures. Even before you get to CityWalk, all Guests and Team Members undergo temperature checks. And yes, Team Members and Guests were wearing masks and following social distancing markers. So any reports to the contrary, are grossly exaggerated. Take it from me, I have literally been there ten times since the reopening, so I’ve seen the park on multiple days. That same attention to health and safety in the theme park was carried directly over to Universal’s movie theatre partner Cinemark.
Much like Universal, Cinemark was on their A-game from box office to exit. When I bought my ticket to E.T., I was able to see on the seat selection monitor just how the company was implementing social distancing. Every row was divided up into two-seat sections. After every two available seats, there were two empty seats. And with the theatre using big recliners, that put six-ish feet between parties. Yes, that means that if you’re a party of three or more, that you cannot sit immediately together. However, if you are a larger travel party, you can purchase tickets together early, and seats will be blocked off on either side of your travel party. The concession stand had social distancing markers in place, and even turned-off every other Freestyle Coke machine. But the Coke machines weren’t the only things that were intentionally turned off to promote social distancing; even the restrooms were setup to accommodate the “six-foot rule.” In the men’s room, every other stall was cordoned off. Of course, what funny is that most guys know that you never take the urinal stall directly next to another guy. So, I thought that was kind of humorous.
Inside the auditorium, I observed that all guests were wearing masks except when eating or drinking. Now, before you get your feathers all ruffled, just like restaurants permit dine-in guests to remove masks when eating, then movie theatres should NOT be thought of any differently. And I’ve also heard the “what about the ventilation system” argument why theatres shouldn’t reopen. If we do not expect Target, the supermarket, schools, places of business, libraries, and gas stations to turn off their environmental systems (and some of those are places that you spend extended amounts of time at, especially if you are still reporting into an office or store for work), then movie theatres should NOT be held to a different standard. Upon leaving the movie, I observed (what appeared to be).a third party cleaning company that was preparing to go inside and clean the auditorium for the next showing. Clearly, Cinemark and Universal have thought through how to maintain a safe environment for all guests and staff. As John Hammond would put it, “sparred no expense.”
The first movie I chose to watch on my return was E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. This is a movie that is particularly dear to my heart because it inspired one of only two remaining opening-day attractions left at Universal Studios Florida (the other being the Horror Makeup Show). I adore the movie, but it’s the attraction that gives it a special place in my heart. Whenever I ride it, I am reminded of my family, and in particular my sister since she comes down to Florida to visit me a few times a year, and we always go to Universal together. When I am riding that bicycle through the forest and through the Green Planet, I feel that my sister is next to me saying “I’ll. Be. Right Here.” Watching this timeless classic on the big screen for the very first time was a breathtaking experience. I cried so many times during the movie, and yes I laughed too. It was like watching it for the very first time, period. I’d like to say it took me back to seeing it in theatres as a kid, but this came out before i was born. Compared to watching it on TV at home, this was a totally different experience that immersed me in the world of the movie. For the runtime, I could shut out the chaos and confusion of the world in which we presently live, and get lost in this cinematic fantasy that has delighted audiences for nearly four decades.
After I watched the movie, I went to visit a friend of mine working in Islands of Adventure before heading back to Universal Studios to ride the E.T. Adventure, then take in the new Bourne Stuntacular show that is in the former T2:3D show building. Although I had seen the show during it’s opening weekend, I wanted to go back to the former home of the T2 attraction before watching T2: Judgement Day on the big screen for the first time! So after returning ET to the Green Planet and following Jason Bourne, I went back to the Cinemark to watch Terminator 2: Judgement Day. And WOW! That film still holds up incredibly well. more than twenty-five years later, and that movie still delivers the spectacular in spades. Yes, even the old CGI effects still look killer (well, most of them anyway). The picture, the sound, everything transported you from that auditorium to the streets of LA along side John, Sarah, and Arnold. Words cannot capture the magic of the moment of sitting there, watching another timeless motion picture on the big screen.
The next day, I met up with the Always the Critic podcast to watch Jurassic Park together! Since there were four of us, we couldn’t all sit together, but we were all able to watch the movie together, and that’s the most important element. Now, Jurassic Park is a film that I did get to see in theatres in 1993 and upon re-release in 2013, 2015 (leading up to Jurassic World), and in 2018, so this was not as mindblowing as the former two; however, it is my favorite movie of all time and I never miss a chance to see it on the big screen. Having the opportunity to watch it with new pod-friends was an experience that will long be remembered. It was so much fun when we all go together immediately following the movie to talk about how amazing it was to see on the big screen surrounded by incredibly sound technology. We even commented on how we jump at certain parts even though we know that they are coming up. Something about seeing it in a movie theatre with other people that still makes you jump and react much in the same way you may have done when you did see it for the first time.
There are other movies that I plan to see on the big screen such as Jaws, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, select Harry Potter films, and more. I hope that this idea of running old and new classic movies continues into the Halloween season so we could get screenings of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Psycho, Halloween, Friday the 13th, SCREAM, Misery, Carrie, The Shining, and so many others! Perhaps this is how cinemas will reimagine their business model. In addition to the new movies that will eventually be released in theatres, they will continue to show motion pictures that have contributed significantly to the human experience over the decades.
Should you choose to attend your local cinema, make sure they are following local, state, and federal guidelines and ordinances. Many movie theatres will require masks even if local government bodies do not, and that’s okay. I don’t like wearing one when I go out, but I wear one without complaint because I want to be cooperative and responsible. If your cinema is taking the recommended CDC and DOH precautions, then return with confidence that your health and safety are priorities for your cinema. You will probably see the theatre staff happier than ever because they (1) have their jobs back and (2) are incredibly thrilled to welcome you once again to the movies. By returning to the cinema, this will provide the empirical data necessary for distribution companies to justify releasing new movies in theatres once again. Without butts in seats, it makes it difficult to make a decision to release a movie theatrically. Your return to the cinema will do your mind and body good, it will help to bring back jobs, pump money into the economy, keep the cinematic experience alive for generations to come, and bring a smile to your face.
There are inherent risks with life; everyday we get out of bed, there are risks. Yet, we still get up and go about our day. You don’t allow the possibility of a car accident to stop you from driving, so don’t allow the possibility of contact with COVID-19 to stop you from living your best life ever. Do your best not to treat your return to the cinema (or theme parks) any differently. Now, don’t be selfishly reckless either; follow the guidelines and ordinances for your state or city without complaint. Wear your mask, if asked to do so (which is probably all movie theatres and theme parks right now), maintain the 6ft rule as reasonably possible, and above all, exhibit a positive, optimistic attitude in order to continue to build the general level of confidence that we will not live in fear but take the necessary precautions to promote health and safety for all. So, it is plain to see that movie theatres CAN and WILL intentionally make accommodations and implement precautions to promote health and safety to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. I never once felt unsafe at any point in my return to the cinema. Return to your cinema this weekend!
Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!
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