A physical reopening, virtually hopeful space owners

Watching TV at home
Watching TV at home (Photo credit: Mollie Sivaram)

Palace Amusement reminds me of Busy Signal and Mavado. It seems as if the two deejays beat the courier service’s passport delivery time from the US Embassy to the pick-up location when they were permitted to travel to ‘farin’ again, because as soon as the announcement was made they were in Uncle Sam’s country. And, it seems that no sooner had Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced a limited reopening of the entertainment sector that the only cinema chain in Jamaica posted its schedule. It is a reduced one, certainly, but as of Friday 25 June, you could go to the Carib 5 and Sunshine (in Portmore) and see The Fast Saga, Nobody and A Quiet Place, with the first also on at the New Kingston Drive-in.

However, while they were physically absent from the live performance circuit in the US, Busy Signal and Mavado were sure of an eager audience wanting to see them in the flesh. Palace Amusement has no such guarantee, and this must be a telling weekend for the operators. It is not only their nerves that will be tested as they keep a keen eye on the ratio of occupied to empty seats, but every entertainment provider whose livelihood depends on a seated audience – theatre and stand-up comedy included. For while a crowd and high-quality loudspeakers (and communal alcohol consumption) are required for dancing, whatever the genre, it remains to be seen just how well Jamaicans have adapted to getting other content on a screen at home – so much so that the numbers of persons going out will be vastly reduced.

It seems to me that theatre and stand-up comedy have an advantage here, as they serve up a distinctly Jamaican fare. Palace Amusement, on the other hand, trades almost exclusively in USA offerings and there has been large-scale turning to alternative means of getting the same content from other countries. Netflix leads the charge, of course, although you will be hard-pressed to find a Jamaican with their own Netflix account. It is like a large group of migrant workers sharing an apartment – they have to sleep in shifts and if you are doing the group thing on a Netflix account, you have to get on early or beg someone to ease off a bit so you can catch a show. However, YouTube has tons of Nigerian movies for free, if you have the patience to wait out the advertisements and skip at the earliest opportunity and, even before that, go through some seriously long titles (like ‘The rich boss man’s daughter did not know that poor gateman at her father’s mansion was a billionaire pretending to be broke to see if someone would truly love him’). And, on the Jamaican front, I have watched quite a few movies from the Richard Brown Films and Jammiwood outfit based in Negril, Westmoreland (although some of Negril is in Hanover).

Let us not forget that the Internet providers have been mighty busy during the COVID-19 lockdown. FLOW, especially, has been pushing its new fibre optic service in various communities across the island and for those of us who have taken advantage (not least of all because the old wire based service could have some serious intermission times) have found that watching video in 4K can be quite fun.

However, for those invested in watching movies on the big screen, whether for pleasure or profit, there is encouraging news coming out of the USA. On 26 May, USA Today reported that the country’s largest cinema chain, AMC Theatres, as well as Cinemark, had reopened 98 per cent of their locations, with the second ranked Regal Cinemas topping the 97 per cent figure. It also reported that moviegoers were very happy with what was being served up. While we tend not to have such well-sorted statistics, it is easy to see that Palace Amusement is being very cautious. No schedule yet for the Liguanea and Montego Bay locations. Of course, that could help to concentrate a reduced audience. You know, a bit like how I heard that Byron Lee would adjust the crowd barriers his Chukka Cove events to just beyond the expected turnout when he had a good idea of the crowd coming in, so it always seemed full.

However, this is not just a test of how a well-established Jamaican entertainment brand will fare in this COVID-19 transition era, but also the extent to which Jamaicans have adapted to the home screen way of life. And that has implications for the rollout of all sorts of digital platforms, including by the state. It could turn out to be a curious thing, that Palace Amusement not seeing the crowds it hopes for also means that more citizens are locked into their personal screens and hence more accessible by the public, as well as the other way around. Or, perhaps, both can co-exist and there will be winners all around.

Let’s see what happens when the curtains are rolled back at the cinemas this weekend.

Mel Cooke covered Jamaican entertainment as a print journalist for almost two decades, overlapping with his MPhil research on dancehall and experiential marketing with the Institute of Caribbean Studies, UWI, Mona, where he is now working on a PhD while lecturing in the Bachelor of Arts, Communication Arts and Technology (BACAT) programme at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech, Ja.).

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