ICTA: Cinema Design Considerations in the Covid-19 Aftermath Webinar - ICTA ICTA: Cinema Design Considerations in the Covid-19 Aftermath Webinar - ICTA

ICTA: Cinema Design Considerations in the Covid-19 Aftermath Webinar

August 18, 2020

Following on our well-attended and informative “Cinema vs. Coronavirus” webinar, ICTA staged an encore performance with an information-laden webcast, “Cinema Design Considerations in the Covid-19 Aftermath,” on July 30.

The design webinar, featuring accomplished cinema designers Mike Cummings (TK Architects), Marcus Howell (Dialectic Engineering), Dominico del Priore (DeCa Design) and Mike Voegtle (5G Studio), was moderated by ICTA VP Frank Tees (Moving Image Technologies). The webinar was facilitated by Dan Loria, SVP Content Strategy & Editorial Director, and Rebecca Pahle, Deputy Editor, both with BoxOffice Media.

Frank opened with the strategic question, “are you getting requests to change the way that theatres are designed,” to better weather the current pandemic and future ones, to which all the panellists voiced an enthusiastic “yes!”

Digging deeper, Howell noted that a lot of attention was being paid to “…the design of mechanical systems, such as filtration systems and possibly UV systems, in light of the pandemic. It’s a big topic, we have some ideas and we began thinking about this when theatres began to shut down, in fact.”

Cummings expanded the discussion, citing that his clients “…are thinking of what needs to be done as they re-open their businesses and in turn so are we… (especially) how people move through a theatre, interact with food and beverage sales, where they sit in auditoriums and less obvious areas like washrooms and hallways.”

Tees observed that, at least with the cinema industry, there has been a prior push to spacing things out, led by the desirability of luxury reclining seats, whereas the live show industry – stadiums, arenas – have been trying to pack more seats into venues. “But is that going to be the biggest design change we see in our cinema industry, for seat spacing?”

Dominico concurred, saying that the quality-investments in high-end seating have dominated trends in the European and Middle East cinema spheres, and will continue, in part due to how it fits in with Covid-safety responses. “We’re working on a 17-screen venue over 17,000 sq metres (183,000 sq feet) in Dubai and we’re bringing back balconies and other seating arrangements to ensure a premium-large format (PLF) experience on different levels,” given the new realities of cinema attendance.

In reply, Cummings observed that, with one client, the plans were set prior to construction and Covid, so the client asked him to revisit the original seating design. “Rather than jam seats in every nook and cranny possible, it’s better to design seating arrangements that will be most palatable to customers, emphasizing more spacing and privacy… rather than fighting for the armrest space with another audience member you don’t know,” said Cummings.

Voegtle said that it’s “going to be tough keeping the distancing,” even with sophisticated POS seating software that automatically keeps an empty seat between assigned seats, “and although we all want to see the [crowds] come back and fill the seats, I have a hard time [envisioning] spreading out these seats more than they are” when crowds grow.

“We’re being asked for greater [air] filtration” said Howell, and that may mean “going to MERV 13 filters and UV-C (ultraviolet) lighting,” to give patrons a comfort level returning to the theatres, but Tees noted that some of these systems have been tested on coronavirus, but not necessarily this Covid-19 version.

Turning to concessions and dining, Tees acknowledged the prevailing wisdom that “concessions are where the money is for exhibitors,” but wondered how the dine-in/at-your-seat concept will evolve, given the new realities.

“Everything we can do to get people out of queues (line-ups) is welcome and benefits everyone…no one likes to spend time in a queue,” said del Priore, and that means enabling the theatre’s Operations team to get ahead of that business, with pre-ordering and ensuring that in-seat delivery is smooth and fast. Interest in foyer space design is high among clients, particularly those with natural air and light, like a garden space, as well.

Permanent changes in food and beverage prep and delivery are inevitable, added Cummings, noting that it’s the visibility that counts more – the open-kitchen ideas – to assure moviegoers that all the right precautions are observed in preparing their orders. “Personal-device ordering as opposed to person-to-person ordering” will grow as well, noted Cummings.

“We’re definitely seeing that open-kitchen concept embraced,” enthused del Priore, and Tees added that it facilitates people seeing that services are being sanitized and cleaned, in real-time, as well.

Concession stands and related queuing is not going away, however, Tees asserted, and Voegtle agreed that grab-and-go will remain and evolve. “App-based preordering systems will speed pickup,” even for items like popcorn and candy, placed on trays or doggie bags for quick retrieval. Warming to the topic, del Priore said there’s opportunity to use pre-ordering to prepare and move longer-prep food items to stalls or carts, breaking down the areas by food product lines.

Will changes involving better cleaning amidst food-preparation areas be of interest, mused Tees? “Grill areas already boast a pretty high ventilation rate” but it sounds like we’ll need to increase the footprint of kitchens, with an attendant cost increase, observed Howell.

Shifting gears, Tees asked the designers if a trend to smaller theatres, to avoid total shutdowns of larger spaces should second-waves of Covid occur, is likely. Voegtle said that, once again, there’s already a trend to smaller theatres, as they can more easily host parties, special event screenings, streaming services, etc. However, Voegtle doubted that an industry that relies on big crowds for premium-large format (PLF) movies, capitalizing on the industry’s ability to provide experiences that one can’t get in one’s home, will set the tone. “There’s a role for smaller theatres but I don’t see them as a game-changer across the industry.”

Cummings partially agreed, saying that PLF, tentpole ‘super-hero’ kinds of movies in theaters is a broken model but will come back, and that smaller spaces play well to gaming applications, social events, and moves the modern theatre into more than cinema projection, “into an entertainment center” in fact.

What changes then might be positive, for private-event rooms hosting social events and corporate events, in combination with arcades and gaming and bowling alleys, asked Tees.

“Well, the 1990s theatre with 2,000 seats, and 11 screens is changing, as we upgrade the experience for customers,” said del Priore, citing the changing dynamics of the theatrical experience window, as it shrinks, necessitating a better experience delivered quickly that’s different than other media expressions. Citing e-Sports and other vertical markets, his customers are asking him to design venues that facilitate multi-function uses. “It’s a conundrum by way of a design challenge” for seating, to be multifunctional.

Regardless of theatre size, Howell said that bringing in outside air and increasing sanitization were emerging as big trends. “It’s making people comfortable and as people return to theatres en-masse,” and these are more discerning customers than [pre-pandemic], so we’re addressing that desire, said Howell. Perceptions across industries is that inadequate air handling and filtration aided the pandemic, said Tees, so in this germophobic environment, how can we improve the current air filtration systems?

Howell opined that standard maintenance, which played second-fiddle to the boom times experienced before the pandemic, had to take the lead role. Cummings said that higher filtration and UV-C have been based on volumes, “number of people per room,” so fewer people per room will put less strain on these systems. Revisiting the basics of airflow, perhaps “pushing it up” according to del Priore, is needed. It’s not without precedent noted Tees, who said in the old days, ventilation came from under the seats rather than from above, and displayed a new-world schematic on how this might be accomplished.

Howell cautioned that displacement is “extremely efficient, extremely popular and extremely quiet” hence its popularity. It does require more planning on the architect’s part and although it doesn’t create a perfect air-barrier for a patron, it’s generally good practice and healthier. “But it is more expensive to install,” said Howell.

It still comes back to seating and will we see even more technology built into seats, such as sensors, to keep proper social distancing? “That throws it back into Operations’ [lap]; how are you going to police that, ensure it’s done?” said del Priore. The biggest advantage might be in blatantly signaling this, through an LED on the seat, which will make patrons feel more comfortable, knowing it’s in place. “The technology is certainly there…the seating vendors have shown they can move quickly,” on features, like recliners, etc., so why not, enthused Voegtle.

Moving on, Tees asked if the new realities would affect bathroom design and ticketing; “will we see a sea of kiosks” rather than ticket booths, going forward.

Cummings said there’s some “awfully interesting” kiosk technology out there, evolving, that will help and interjecting, Voegtle noted that even brighter washrooms tended to stay cleaner, so “in a Covid world, dumping more light in there to aid employees in keeping them clean is going to help.” And redesigning surfaces, say on doors using touch-poles, so hands aren’t needed to touch as many surfaces will help, added Voegtle. Interestingly, hand dryers (blowers) once had the advantage over paper towels, but not in an age where Covid is spread in the air, so look for paper-towel resurgence.

Washroom design could end up featuring separate entry points and exits, to facilitate one-way people flow, noted Howell, and who knows he said, maybe it’s time to go back to the days of a bathroom attendant, but in these times “making sure that everything is cleaned up [constantly].” Unisex restrooms, emerging in the restaurant industry, might make their way to theatres.

Looking at the EMEA situation, del Priore went back to the advantage of towels over hand-dryers, for “unless you have filters on them those dryers are just re-circulating air,” which could be contaminated. For washrooms, “definitely no doors, with gravitational hinges; look at electronic soap and water dispensers – so there’s no hand touching – with sensors on taps, and greater lighting”, for sure. Even toilet areas should be designed to enhance the movie-going experience. “It’s part of the experience; it’s a night out for many and the facilities should match,” as it’s part of your date-night.

But how much will this cost, including the hypothetical options, in changing design?

Citing the Italian pandemic experience, as del Priore works in both Italy and Scotland, he answered the question by saying that, even when the virulent first wave had abated, “people want to go back as much as possible to the way things were; people don’t want to completely change the patterns of their behavior,” while acknowledging that awareness – of crowds, of hygiene, of environments – has changed. That’s the challenge for designers; merging these two feelings.

Whether addressing these new realities will lead to significant cost increases to exhibitors is an unknown. However, Howell didn’t anticipate dramatic increases, citing that many of the technologies ‘new’ to cinema are already being used in cost-effective ways in other venues. “We need to pay more attention to the cost of proper maintenance, and even the cost of changing out lighting to UV-C systems is not that drastic.”

In the long-term, there might be incremental cost increases, said Cummings, and noted that manufacturers helped cinemas become more environmentally-friendly, quickly, and that could happen again with quick attention and manufacturing of materials that are antimicrobial or self-cleaning. Re-allocation of space might be the emphasis going forward, as discussed on the webinar, said Cummings.

It’s tough to be working within such a ‘wait and see’ social environment, Voegtle said, but “working with our building partners, we designers need to work early in the design process to determine what’s needed, where we can get offsets on materials, etc., but it all comes down to working within constrained budgets and that’s always our job,” and our responsibility, Voegtle cautioned.

In the wrap-up, the proliferation of drive-in theatres was noted, but as Voegtle said, it isn’t just Walmart parking lots that make good ‘throw up’ theatres, but also regular cinema complexes, where movies could be shown on outside walls with a little ingenuity. Turning to the Q&A, the question emerged whether an economic divide is emerging, with some moviegoers forced for budgetary reasons to stay at home watching streamed movies, while the better-off go to theatres, making them a de facto ‘luxury’ experience.

“Certainly in Europe, unfortunately, the studies show that there’s a [correlation] between disposable income and where you socialize, with the lower-income bracket tending to stay home,” relying on home-entertainment systems rather than attending live, social events (like cinemas), acknowledged del Priore. “Maybe we look at cinemas’ role is for that special-night out and if we are creating spaces for that special night-out, maybe we are creating spaces that everyone [at some time] can access and enjoy, mused del Priore.

Referencing the US market, Cummings also conceded that there is some truth to the economic divide emerging, given disparities, but, optimistically, exhibitors are responding with lower-prices for some times and dates, family-night pricing, and senior discounts. “But if the pandemic has taught us anything, a big part of the human condition and the human experience is to interact and socialize with each other; it’s going to happen somewhere and sometimes that happens in an [uncontrolled] scary place,” but the exhibition industry provides a place where “people can come together and have a shared social experience” in a safe and controlled environment. “We desperately need that…and exhibitors are a very resourceful and bright group, who reinvent themselves constantly, so I remain convinced that they will figure out, in an entrepreneurial way [appropriate] to their markets how to respond to this situation and come out stronger. I’m optimistic about the future. But there is a divide, it’s a challenge, and home-entertainment can be great but like most I crave getting out and doing something more social.”

Upcoming Events


New ICTA Bundle Sponsorships

December 1 2023 - December 31 2024

New York


The Fundamentals of Cinema Technology

June 13 - December 31 2024

New York


ICTA Annual Convention 2024

July 21 - 24 2024

Newport Beach


Sponsorship for Annual Convention 2024

July 21 - 24 2024

Newport Beach

Are you a member?

Get priority access to events

Join ICTA Today