Eui Jeong Lee and three of her friends sit in an otherwise empty 200-seat cinema auditorium and play a video game on the giant screen.
As Ms Lee blasts her gaming opponents with her wireless controller, the sound whips loudly around the dark room from the numerous cinema speakers.
“The sound quality is particularly amazing,” says the 25-year-old student. “The sound of the gunshots is just so vivid, and when something flew directly at me from the screen I even screamed.”
Ms Lee and her mates had hired the screen for two hours at a branch of South Korea’s largest cinema chain, CGV.
With many cinemas across the country closed due to coronavirus restrictions meaning that they can only open with 50% capacity, and far fewer movies being released to tempt cinemagoers, CGV came up with the idea of renting out its auditoriums to gamers to bring in a new revenue stream.
Before 6pm up to four people can hire a screen for two hours for around $90 (£65). This then rises to $135 in the evening. Users have to bring their consoles, games and controllers with them.
The auditoriums being hired out have between 100 and 200 seats, and by comparison CGV movie tickets cost around $12 each. So a 100-seat screen half filled for a film would bring in revenues of $600, rising to $1,200 for a 200-seat one at 50% capacity. And that is before the filmgoers buy their drinks and popcorn.
Yet while CGV isn’t making anywhere as much money from the gamers, it is bringing in some additional income. The scheme is called Azit-X after “azit”, the Korean word for hideout.
CGV employee Seung Woo Han came up with the idea after he realised that films and video games share many similarities.
“When thinking about how to make use of empty cinema spaces, I noticed that games nowadays boast excellent graphics and well structured stories just like movies,” he says. “Both have a storytelling aspect to them, so if someone can enjoy watching a film in the cinema, I thought they would also enjoy playing computer games in one.”
Since the new service launched at the start of this year, auditoriums have been booked more than 130 times so far. While the majority of customers are said to be men in their 30s or 40s, couples and families have also taken part.
The extent to which the global cinema industry has been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic makes grim reading. Global ticket sales in 2020 plunged 71% to $12.4bn (£8.9bn) down from $42.5bn in 2019, according to movie industry trade magazine Variety.
In the US, the country’s largest cinema chain, AMC Theatres, needed a $917m cash injection in December to see off reports that it risked having to seek bankruptcy protection. Meanwhile, in the UK last month, leading British film-makers called on the government to offer financial support to the country’s big cinema chains.
Korea’s CGV is not the only cinema chain now letting gamers book cinema screens, as US group Malco Theatres has been doing the same since November.
Memphis-based Malco allows up to 20 people to hire a screen at its 36 cinemas across Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee. The prices for service, which is called Malco Select, are $100 for two hours or $150 for three.
Karen Melton, vice president and director of marketing at Malco, has mixed emotions: “It is gaining traction, and is becoming popular, but nothing is adding to our profitability at this point.”
Other US chains, such as AMC and Cinemark, have been allowing customers in small groups to book auditoriums for private screenings.
Back in South Korea, CGV is also making money by allowing customers to order its cinema food to be delivered, everything from popcorn or nachos, to corndogs (deep-fried sausages) and calamari.
“People who miss our foods and have fond memories of eating their favourite cinema foods while watching movies in cinemas want to relive the experience at home instead,” says CGV spokesman Seon Hyeon Park.
“Our popcorns have a range of flavours; from caramel, basil and onion, to double cheese. They are different from the ones you can buy from shops and supermarkets, as we make our own popcorn, and our menu has been developed from years of research.”
In the UK, cinemas are closed to cinemagoers due to the latest lockdown restrictions, but one branch of the Odeon chain, in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire has been turned into a temporary Covid-19 vaccination centre.
Meanwhile, in east London, art house cinema Genesis has kept its café open so that people can buy takeaways.
Tyrone Walker-Hebborn, the cinema’s owner, says the pandemic has been disastrous for both cinemas and the wider film industry.
“It’s been the most difficult period I’ve ever known in my 21 years in the industry,” he says. “And it has potentially damaged the film industry forever.
“We basically have not traded for a year now, and I think there are few businesses who can survive that.”
Yet Mr Walker-Hebborn remains confident for the longer term: “I’m extremely optimistic about the future of cinema, and not only do I think cinemas will survive the pandemic, I believe they are a necessary community cornerstone for people to heal from the pandemic.
“I think that in the main it will return to how it was pre-pandemic, but I do think it’s going to take [all of] 2021 for it to return to pretty much where it was.”
Source : BBC