Movie, movie everywhere but cinemas are empty
By Thorn Mulli
'New normal' in cinema at Anga Diamond Cinema in Parklands. [Wilberforce Okwiri]


I watched a movie in a cinema. Not impressed? I watched a movie in a cinema during a pandemic that has forced humanity to observe heightened hygiene practice and engage in an exercise now commonly referred world-over as social distancing. Impressed now?

While content streaming services like Netflix and Showmax have seen a surge in subscriptions prompted by the extended lockdowns, the cinema business on the other hand has endured a battering from coronavirus.

As I walked into the cinema hall, I did not know what to expect. Despite being here many times before, I missed my stop and had to be re-routed after stepping out one floor early. The stark reality brushed on as I walked into the lobby. See, the last time I was at the movies was the premiere of the remake of a childhood favourite, The Lion King.

My recollection of the event during the ‘old’ normal consisted of beaming faces donned in penguin suits and dinner dresses. I still cannot get over how resplendent celebrity Pinky Ghelani looked in her flowing black number as she posed for photos on the red carpet.

Fast forward to September 2020 and an eerie silence welcomed me. Save for two teenage boys, both glued to their phones, and the shuffling of a masked lady manning the ticket counter, the place was empty. Lacking flair, it simulated the sad ambience of the waiting bay and presaged a healthy serving of uncooked bottom corn.

The ticketing person had told me that the numbers pick up during weekend. She stressed, however, social distance rules dictate that they only accommodate half capacity.

As I settled in, I counted seven patrons including myself before the booming voice asked me to put on my 3D glasses to better enjoy the movie. As fate would have it, I was in for yet another remake of a childhood hit ‘Mulan’ albeit this one was a live-action visual marvel that serves as a stirring update to its animated predecessor.

As I stepped out of the theater and into the darkness of the night, I could not help but ponder how the biggest movie, fashioned to be a return-to-cinema chalice, has raised a global storm. While Mulan streamed to significant success in the US, it is not fairing well in China, the second biggest box office in the world.

Back home, domestic players are working hard to draw people back into the cinema experience. After more than five months without patronage, the players insist that cinema is ready for business albeit requiring sensitisation. September 4 marked the return of the two cinemas: Anga Diamond Cinema located in Diamond Plaza 2 and Century Imax located in Garden City Mall.

Naomi Mwangi, the Marketing Manager of Anga Imax Cinemas (Anga Diamond Cinema) is optimistic that business will improve despite the low turnout she attributes to alarm brought on by the pandemic as well as postponement of release dates for most blockbuster releases.

Cinema goers enjoy Mulan the first movie screened since the pandemic struck. [Wilberforce Okwiri]

Wooing cinemagoers

On this front, she crosses her fingers that two big releases James bond and Wonder Woman slated for November and December, will not be rescheduled. Naomi also hopes the ongoing curfew that has also affected their peak shows will be lifted soon. To woo cinemagoers, Anga Diamond has embarked on a charm offensive that includes heavily discounted ticket prices.

So what do you expect when you visit the cinema next? According to Jotham Micah, the Marketing Manager of Century Pictures (Century Imax), expect a hybrid of airline and restaurant health guidelines. Like all public spaces, the ‘no mask, no entry rule’ applies.

Online check-in is encouraged even as seat allocation and movie run-time schedules remains as before. Movie enthusiasts, however, should look out for stickers on the floor indicating where to stand when approaching the concession and ticket stands. Social distancing is also mandatory; a minimum one seat separation. You can heave a sigh of relief because unlike other parts of the world that have forbidden all food and drinks, eating in the halls is presently tolerated.

Should visitors be worried sitting at enclosed cinemas? Jotham argues that sitting out a flight or train ride for hours on end should be more of a concern than sitting in a theater whose run time averages one and a half hours. “Besides, it has been standard practice to clean halls in between shows and routinely fumigate theaters even before the pandemic. That has not changed but has, in fact, been heightened. We hope to re-educate the public on the measures we are taking to keep them safe,” Jothan said.

Liu Yifei, 32, star of Disney's Mulan. [Courtesy]

Disney had hoped that their big-budget production with Chinese origins and boasting an all-Chinese cast was an automatic recipe for success in the country that was the first to open cinemas, but inconsistencies and politics seem to have thrown a spanner to the works.

The result is that the stone the builder chose only raked in $23 million (Sh2.5 billion) in its opening weekend, which is disappointing compared to Easternlight’s juggernaut Wolf Warriors that punched an impressive $32.5 million (Sh3.5 billion) in its first four days of release in the Chinese box office. As of Monday, “Mulan” had 4.9 out of ten stars on Douban, a popular Chinese review website.

Various reports point out that Chinese moviegoers took issue with many historical and anachronistic inconsistencies. The stubborn twisting of Mulan’s character into an extreme feminist is viewed in some quarters as the westernisation of the ballad.

Changes made

Never mind that some at the studio made no secret that many of the changes made from the original Disney animated version were done specifically to appeal to the Chinese audience. Piracy and the recent resumption of the school year did not help ticket sales, but that was nothing compared to the controversy lead actress, Liu Yifei, caused in 2019 after voicing support for Hong Kong police in their crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations.

The film saw limited media coverage when word spread that some scene were shot in Xinjiang, the region where Muslims live under tight control.