Minutes after I read the news that cinemas across Dubai were reopening again, I was on the Vox website, sifting through showtimes for the earliest screening I could attend.
I had missed going to the movies, missed stuffing my face with warm caramel popcorn as the trailers played and – most of all – missed that feeling you get when exiting the cinema after a well-crafted film, like you’re still in the stupor of the story, mentally replaying key scenes as you walk back to the car and drive home.
So on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 27 – the first day of the reopening – I put on a surgical mask, donned gloves and drove down to Vox Cinemas at Mirdif City Centre to catch a 6pm screening of Jojo Rabbit.
In my haste, I didn’t notice I had booked Thursday’s show until the barcode of my ticket was scanned at the entrance. Happens to the best of us, right? With a sealed bag of caramel popcorn and a Diet Coke, I went to the ticket counter, hoping to get my tickets swapped to Wednesday’s showing.
However, there were no afternoon screenings of Taika Waititi's Oscar-winning Second World War comedy-drama, so I opted to catch a screening of Parasite instead.
I had seen the film before, but on my laptop, and I always regretted not watching it in the cinema. So I took the ticketing debacle as an opportunity to re-watch the Oscar-winning film and to see how the pandemic has changed how we watch films on the big screen.
Five ways the cinema experience has changed
1. Fewer showtimes
Screening times have been dramatically reduced, and understandably so. Most films have no more than a single showtime per day, with a few blockbusters – such as Birds of Prey – showing twice a day in select cinemas.
With the coronavirus affecting release dates, you'll also notice that most of the films screening are reruns, which could be a good thing if you missed on some of the best films of 2019 and 2020, such as Jojo Rabbit and Parasite.
2. One-size-only popcorn
You won’t be getting an open bucket of your favourite snack anymore, and you can't order different sizes.
Popcorn now comes in a single size and is served already packaged in a resealable paper bag. But don't worry, it's more than enough. By the time the movie ended and I was dusting off bits of popcorn from my T-shirt, the bag was still more than half full.
3. The seating: most chairs are blocked off
If you’re booking online, you’ll notice this right away.
There are fewer seats to pick from on the website’s seating plan. In a cinema that normally seats more than 110 people, you can only pick from 32 seats. That leads to a reassuring level of social distancing.
The rest of the seats have been plastered with a cautionary notice that reads: “To protect yourself and others, please keep this seat free.”
4. 'Social distancing monitors'
Naturally, all cinema staff now wear masks and gloves. There are hand sanitising stations available every few metres. "Social distancing monitors" patrol the cinema and the concessions stand, making sure that people are staying the customary two metres away from each other.
Staff also periodically enter the cinema to ensure people are not sitting on seats that are otherwise designated to be empty.
5. It's still quiet
If you’re used to long queues at the food counter and crowds loitering about near the entrances to the different cinema halls, then you might find a very different experience.
It may change over the weekend, but on Wednesday evening when I visited, there were very few people, and in cinema 12, where Parasite was playing, there was only one couple seated at the other end of the cinema hall.
This could make for a great viewing experience, depending on what film you're watching. If you're opting for a drama, such as Parasite, it can help you to engross yourself in the film. But if you're watching a horror, such as Invisible Man, you could find yourself missing the collective gasps.
But all in all, I'd say it was one of my most memorable cinema experiences to date. Watching Parasite in a mostly empty cinema, I was absorbed by certain elements and shots (the many stairs scenes sing on the big screen).
This moment made me realise how much I'd missed the cinema: the complexities of a movie such as Parasite are much harder to take in on a laptop.