What It’s Like to Go to the Movies During a Pandemic
When you pay for a “Private Watch Party” you don’t expect to find two strangers passionately making out in your theater.
Nonetheless, that’s what I encountered when I showed up to mine at the Cinemark North Haven and XD in Connecticut. My reserved theater was already occupied by a couple locking lips so furiously they didn’t notice when I entered the room. I immediately left and returned to the lobby, where I alerted the theater manager, a tall, friendly gentlemen in a green polo shirt and light blue mask. He got them to leave and repeatedly apologized. “They didn’t even stop when I turned on the cleaning lights,” he chuckled.
It was funny — at least as funny as every person’s worst moviegoing nightmare in the era of the coronavirus can be. Presumably, these two kissers are healthy (or at least asymptomatic) if they’re playing tonsil hockey in public. But in a world of aerosols and viral loads, it’s precisely what you don’t want to see — especially when you pay for a “private” screening. For a brief moment, I wondered whether Cinemark had a different sort of “Private Watch Party” in mind than the one I thought I signed up for.
The couple left without incident, and my guest and I were allowed into our now-actually-private theater to watch Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. No one else disturbed us for the film’s 150 minutes. Still, the illusion of a safe, controlled environment was destroyed before the show had started. We asked the manager if there might be another theater we could use instead of the one that had just been used for a tonsil hockey game and were told no. We sat in the opposite corner of the auditorium and wore our masks.
This was my first trip to a movie theater in almost six months. On March 11, 2020, I took the subway into Manhattan for a press screening of Bloodshot. At the time, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was still encouraging people to go about their business as if nothing was wrong. (“If you’re not sick, you should be going about your life,” he said that day.) Despite some serious reservations, I listened to him. Within days, the city began to shut down. I haven’t seen the inside of a theater — or a subway — since.
Cases in the New York City area have remained low for months, but movie theaters are still closed. Even if they were open, I would not risk attending a public showing of anything — particularly since the major theater chains have made it clear that while masks are required in their lobbies, they can be removed during screenings to allow for eating and drinking. That’s why the “Private Watch Party” deal that Cinemark offers seemed appealing to me. For as little as $99 in some cases (and for some movies) you could get the big-screen experience with a couple of trusted friends or family members without having to deal with sharing an enclosed space with strangers for several hours.
When I arrived a few minutes before my “private” screening, I was surprised to find a fair amount of cars in the theater’s parking lot. The reason I was able to book a theater to watch Tenet is because August 31 was Warner Bros.’ designated “Early Access Screenings” day for the film. There were at least two scheduled during the same hour as my Private Watch Party. At least in suburban Connecticut, a fair number of film lovers felt secure enough to try it out.
What they found was one of the cleanest movie theaters I have ever encountered in my life. The floors sparkled and the counters shined. Even the dingy hallway carpets looked like they’d been freshly vacuumed. Hand sanitizer dispensers were all over the lobby. I had brought wipes to clean off my seat and didn’t need them; the theater had wipes available near every auditorium entrance. Signs everywhere reminded guests to wear masks and maintain social distance. This might have amounted to a big show of what The Atlantic recently called “hygiene theater.” If it was, it was done effectively.
Apart from the two makeout artists, everyone else I saw followed the rules, and the staff seemed to have everything under control. That said, the fact that they need to keep things “under control” speaks to just how much moviegoing has changed in the last few months, and for the foreseeable future. It’s hard to escape reality — the chief function of a trip to the theater for so many cinephiles — when the bleakest parts of that reality are highlighted everywhere you look. You can sit back in your plush recliner, but it’s awfully hard to relax while you enjoy the show.
Would I do it again? Probably, for the right movie, though not any time soon and certainly not regularly. Would I recommend it to others? Maybe. Definitely keep in mind, however, that your private theater may not be as private as you want it to be.
Gallery — Every Christopher Nolan Movie, Ranked From Worst to Best: