“Some spaces might need to adapt their configurations to account for people’s health consciousness,” Stanford University Assistant Professor Kathryn Olivarius says
Hollywood and the entertainment industry face an existential crisis: There’s no certainty that when the clearance is given for theaters to reopen and concerts and sporting events to resume that consumers will flock back to those often crowded spaces.
Two questions persist as we enter our fourth week of coronavirus-forced shutdowns: When will this all be over? And what does a world post COVID-19 even look like?
“If you think about in terms of the behaviors of people, this is an unprecedented event,” UCLA social sciences dean Darnell Hunt said. “Just by the sheer impact of this, I can’t imagine that things go back to business as usual… clearly culture has been affected.”
The sentiment is widespread.
Actor Kumail Nanjiani wrote on Twitter as most people entered week three of self-isolating, that he couldn’t imagine shaking another hand once the pandemic subsides. It may have been a joke, or a slight exaggeration, but what it isn’t is an outrageous nor frivolous thing to say.
Hollywood has all but punted on the pivotal summer movie season. With the novel coronavirus continuing to spread in the U.S., movie theaters are forced to remain closed and folks confined to their homes. Authorities suggest the lockdowns could extend well into the summer, but there’s no knowing precisely when stay-at-home orders might be lifted; or more concerning, when things will go back to normal — whatever that looks like now.
Studios have already pulled virtually all their movies set to come out in the next couple months from the release slate, pushing them to later in the year or into 2021, and in some cases jettisoning them to streaming services.
Some experts have pointed to post-September 11 America and what it was like to go to the airport and fly in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. The last time Disney closed its theme parks, until the coronavirus pandemic, was after 9/11. While the circumstances were very different, and the repercussions felt most intensely in air travel, the unprecedented nature of the events is useful in illustrating how change happens in a society and in the behavior of individuals.
“All of the things that we used to do in person are still important to us to do. Humans are social animals,” Hunt said. “But I suspect that going forward, people are going to be a lot more cautious and wary.”
John Sloss, founder of indie film financing and distribution company Cinetic Media, said that while there will certainly be vested interest in helping movie theaters rebound from the pandemic, cinema operators shouldn’t just assume audiences will be willing to frequent theaters again right away.
“There’s going to be a lot of change in consumer habits, and if home premieres like ‘Trolls World Tour’ really work out well with families, they may find that they prefer seeing a brand new movie with their kids in the comfort of their own homes rather than driving out and paying for parking and other things,” Sloss said, referring to Universal’s decision to skip a theatrical release for the animated “Trolls” sequel in favor of a video on-demand release set for this week.
A study published last week by Performance Research, a sports and events research firm, in partnership with Full Circle Research Co., said that consumers are having trepidation about returning to event spaces after the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the study, 51% of the more than 1,000 U.S. consumers said it would take them a few months or longer to return to indoor sports or concert venues, while 44% reported the same for outdoor venues. Similarly, 33% indicated they will likely attend indoor sports or concert venues less often post-pandemic, while just 26% reported the same for outdoor venues.
“Everyone’s likely going to err on the side of caution,” Comscore media analyst Paul Dergarabedian said. “People are going to be forever changed by this. Not sure if there’ll be a revolution in terms of behaviors, but there will almost certainly be an evolution… social distancing is something that will likely remain in the culture.”
At the onset of the coronavirus spread in the U.S., before movie theaters were forced to shut down completely, many of the major chains instituted social distancing seating, whereas seats were left open between moviegoers. Experts, including Dergarabedian, predict that practices such as those will likely remain for the time being.
Kathryn Olivarius, an assistant professor of history at Stanford University, pointed to 19th century New Orleans as one historic model for a post-COVID society.
“City authorities always shut down theaters and operas when outbreaks of yellow fever became serious enough. But the moment restrictions were lifted again (after the first mosquito-killing frosts), every seat was full,” Olivarius said. “That may say more about the particular culture of yellow fever in New Orleans — or the Deep South’s rapacious capitalism — than the human need to return to normalcy.”
Consumer behaviors post-coronavirus, she said, will likely face long-term changes, as social distancing orders continue for months or even trickle into years.
“Already, people are getting used to being at home all the time, working on Zoom and putting on Netflix. Already, it feels reflexive to give other people a huge berth when walking outside,” Olivarius said. “I’d bet people will go to the movies again, and eat at restaurants, and dance in flower-crowns at Coachella, etc., but they might be more epidemiologically conscious, even nervous for a while. And some spaces might need to adapt their configurations to account for people’s health consciousness.”