Will they come back?

In an earlier post I wondered about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic might have on various industries. One of these was cinemas. This past week WarnerMedia announced that they were going to be releasing their full slate of 2021 films simultaneously in theatres and on HBO Max. Writing in The Atlantic, David Sims was left to only express some hope that “Once a vaccine is widely distributed, a pent-up desire to return to normalcy could be unleashed. I, certainly, crave the collective experience of movie-watching; I’m sure I’m not the only one sick of seeing things from my couch. If other studios go the way of WarnerMedia, theaters will be hanging their hopes on that nostalgia.”

I don’t share any of his wistful optimism, or his nostalgia for movie theatres. And while I think he’s right that some people would love to return to the way we were, I also think that cinemas will find they’ve lost a lot of their market permanently. What’s more, I don’t know how well they’ll be able to do going forward given this new reality.

Another question I’ve been wondering about with regard to returning to normal has to do with higher education. A lot of universities are offering their courses online during the pandemic, turning many campuses into ghost towns. When I asked one academic what he thought about students coming back after the “all clear” is been given (which may not be until September 2021) he thought they would rush to return, not wanting to miss out on the “university experience.”

I’m not so sure. That university experience is something enjoyed most by the most popular students, who are not always the best, or a majority. Meanwhile, university has become very expensive, to the point that living at home (however depressing this may be) can be a real relief to one’s finances. Why relocate to another city, pay rent, and put up with all the other hassles, when you can just do your courses from your bedroom?

One should rarely bet against comfort and convenience. I’ve been indirectly related to an adult learning program for a few years and in 2020 they moved to a system where they presented all of their live lecture series online. Recently there was a straw vote among the various regional boards about what to do when things went back to normal. The vote was overwhelming (over 90%) for staying online. This saves money on renting locations to hold lectures, as well as the inconvenience experienced by people having to drive somewhere and pay for parking, etc. Plus, people were finding the lectures online superior in many ways to those attended in person. For myself, I’ve found I enjoy the ability to nod off and have a nap during the dull ones. Then there is the fact that people can register from all over the country, and lecturers can broadcast from all over the world. So you can even listen to the courses you want while on vacation (listening to an instructor who may be on vacation too).

In other words, I wouldn’t be so quick to think that university is ever going to return to normal and that students will all want to come back. Or that, if many do come back, universities will be able to continue business as (pre-COVID) usual. No doubt some, perhaps many, moviegoers will return to cinemas, and students will return to classrooms. But how will the system accommodate the no-doubt significant number who don’t? Will some sort of hybrid system work? I think it will be impossible to go back to the way things were.

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