Box offices are suffering because of COVID-19. How will the cinema adapt to the times?

Xi’an – Entertainment spaces, like every arena that attracts more than one person these days, are subject to total redesign. With the COVID-19 crisis looming overhead, crunching on popcorn in the company of a packed theatre, for example, seems less of an idyllic Saturday activity. Box offices are suffering everywhere. Cinematic businesses are adapting, though, as restrictions ease: a variety of protective measures are being enforced in auditoriums and drive-ins are advertising themselves on highway billboards with clever quips like ‘Social Distancing Since 1965’.

Despite the hardship experienced by global film industries thus far, there is faith that the cinema will survive this tumult. Pre-pandemic, box-office revenues were higher than ever before – especially in China, where projections estimated that figures would surpass those of the US in 2020. The novel coronavirus, instead, has spelled out at least €1.36 billion in losses for China, reports Forbes. After attempting a partial reopen in mid-March, BBC relays that nearly 500 cinemas in the country (of 70,000, a few of which we've previously covered) were shut down again amid arguments that the conditions were still too unsafe.

All of this doesn’t have to mean that their velvet curtains will be drawn forever. Completed just prior to the 24 January shuttering of China’s theatres, Xi’an’s FAB Cinema’s saving grace may be its sheer unconventionality. ‘Traditional theatres pay more attention to panoramic sound effects and the viewing experience on the screen while they lack creativity,’ explains a spokesperson for the responsible design studio, X+Living. ‘The single business model of selling tickets and snacks … [does that] somehow weaken the experience and expectations that the venue can give the audience? Or ignore the chemistry that can occur between the audience and the theatre?’

FAB Cinema, in all its 1150 m2 extravagance, encourages that ‘chemistry’ by creating a spatial experience to complement the viewing experience. The theatre is divided into four distinctly themed video halls. One is a ‘European-style study’, decked with filled and ‘aristocratic’ touches. Another is an ‘artist’s living room’, decorated with vibrant colours, geometric elements and a sculpture of a bunny. Black-and-white carpeting and seats live in the dark-green hall three, its design an interpretation of classical architectural elements. And hall four goes for the surreal: emulating an urban avenue, bright neon and multi-coloured seating define the space.

But the venue is also integrated with other entertainment formats, features that effectively entice people to stay in the space longer. A lounge bar and novelties like a fantastical billiard table and immersive, metallic claw machine are aimed at making up for ‘free time before and after the movie’. But visual excitement is at every turn, even areas that don’t typically warrant thoughtful design consideration, like hallways and the ticket-purchase desk. Props are aplenty – visitors may be easily fooled into believing they’re in actually on the set of a movie. They’re connected to the space through their imaginations. As far as X+Living’s concerned, that’s the whole point.

That strategy may turn out to be profitable for FAB, with the promise of momentary escape being as magnetic as it is now. This year, we may not have vacations abroad or elaborate parties. But we can lose ourselves in the movies – or in FAB’s case, at the movies – if theatres adhere to guidelines that ensure the safety of patrons.

Read about more hospitality spaces here.

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