Eduvation Blog

FFWD> A Plague on Both Your Houses

Good morning, and TGIF!

More and more CdnPSEs are announcing their plans for online spring and summer terms (and convocations), although they continue to be more optimistic about the prospects for Fall. (It sounds like firmer plans for Fall will start to be announced around about April – although like last year, we won’t be in a position to promise F2F until September.)

To keep things a little lighter on Fridays, I’m going to start tackling 20 stacks I’m calling “>FFWD,” because they represent trends in technology, society, and consumer behaviour that have been accelerated by the pandemic – and that may offer some insight (by way of analogy) into what could lie ahead for higher ed as well.

Today, let’s look at the pandemic’s impact on movie houses, and playhouses…



In the decades since my doctoral work on Shakespeare, I have spent a considerable chunk of every year at the Stratford (ON) Festival with family and friends. For Christmas 2019 I bought almost everyone in my family tickets to some wonderful plays for the summer of 2020. (So much for my futurist cred at home. Sigh…)

Since Shakespeare’s day, theatres have been among the first enterprises PHOs shut down in times of plague. London theatres were closed for 78 months (6.5 years!) of the decade 1603-13. The emotional, financial, and mortal toll of plague simmers beneath hundreds of references in Shakespeare’s writing. From the Black Death, to Spanish Flu, to COVID19, theatre performers have often been forced to abandon their livelihoods, lodge with friends or patrons, and turn their hand to busking or composing sonnets.

There are few physical differences between theatres for performance, and theatres for lectures. (So few, in fact, that Ryerson U shared some AMC cinemas as part-time lecture space.) The business models of entertainment and education are, obviously, different, but bringing people together for large classes poses many of the same issues.


Struggling Canadian Cinemas

Most Canadian cinemas were shut down over the 2020 holidays, as they were for much of the year in major urban areas, and the few that were allowed to open had to operate at reduced capacity. (That’s costly – much like it is for campus dorms.) The outlook for 2021 hinges on curbing the pandemic (and as we’ve noted before, that will depend upon vaccine distribution, vaccinations, efficacy, and the absence of resistant variants). But cinema chains were facing business headwinds before COVID19: Hollywood studios were pushing for faster transitions to streaming and rental platforms, and were growing their own streaming services. Cineplex’s share value dropped 70%, and is now planning to sell its Toronto headquarters to repay debt. (As I noted in Tuesday’s edition, some struggling colleges are selling off buildings too.) Many cinephiles insist that theatres will survive, although there may be mergers of some chains, or a reduction in the number of screens. Cineplex CEO Ellis Jacob confidently predicts “we will have a huge pop when things start to get better… 2021 is going to be an awesome year in this business.” But they may need to consider “dynamic pricing” or even “all-you-can-watch subscription movie passes.”  Global

“There were enormous challenges to this industry long before COVID ever forced us into lockdown. But it’s really easy to be cynical and think movie theatres are dead. I don’t think that’s the case at all. There’s a real opportunity for change and for theatres to actually come back, bigger and better in some ways.” Jason Gorber, Toronto film critic


“People are going to be a little bit skittish about gathering and there’s probably a percentage of the audience that’s gone for good.” Louis-Étienne Dubois, Ryerson University Future of Live Entertainment Lab


AMC Flirts with Bankruptcy

AMC Theatres has temporarily evaded bankruptcy by raising $917M in financing since Dec 14, extending their “financial runway… deep into 2021.” They’ll need that time, because most major motion picture releases have been postponed until Oct 2021 or even later. (The latest James Bond flick, No Time to Die, has been postponed so many times that advertisers are concerned their product placements no longer make any sense.) Although 438 of AMC’s 593 US theatres are open, attendance overall is down -92.3%. Studios are starting to sell off first run movies to streaming platforms like Netflix or AppleTV (like Wonder Woman 1984), or offering them for a fee on their own platforms (like the live-action Mulan and animated Soul). The real issue is, “will people feel comfortable sitting in packed theatres with strangers again, hearing people sneeze and cough, especially during the winter months?”  The Verge


Studios Go Digital

Warner Media has already announced that all of their 2021 film releases will hit HBO Max the same day they are released in theatres. This “seismic shift” may signal that “Hollywood is preparing to sacrifice movie theatres.” Even post-COVID, audiences may have developed new expectations and habits that will be hard to undo. (Once enough people buy surround-sound systems and 90-inch screens, what’s the incentive to walk across sticky floors and pay $20 for popcorn?) Studio-owned streaming services Disney+, Paramount+, and NBCUniversal’s Peacock are competitors who will exit the pandemic stronger than ever.  The Atlantic

“If theaters do somehow survive… the entire industry will look different… Cinemas could become even more of a boutique experience, charging much higher premiums for a big-screen experience to people uninterested in viewing movies at home.” David Sims, The Atlantic


Disney Pivots Fast

Disney announced a major restructuring in October to invest strategically in Disney+, rather than its theme parks, cruises, live sports, cinema releases, cable television or retail stores. (It’s as if Harvard or MIT announced they were going all in on edX, instead of campus lecture halls and dorms.) “The sheer velocity of this pivot for a company the size and age of Disney is, for lack of a better word, unprecedented.” And it augurs ill for “less diversified” cruise lines or theme parks. (Disney laid off 28,000 US theme-park workers in September, as revenues dropped from $7B to <$1B.) The pivot to digital suggests that Disney expects the pandemic to have a lasting impact on its other business lines. And in the words of Ratatouille’s Chef Gusteau, “If you focus on what you left behind, you will never be able to see what lies ahead.”  Fast Company

“The writing on the wall is clear: Boldly transform yourself into digital-first businesses or go obsolete.”Hamza Mudassir, Cambridge Judge Business School


Neoliberal Hollywood

Just as many have observed that the pre-COVID “normal” in higher ed was flawed and problematic, particularly where equity, diversity, and decolonization are considered, critics have complained since the 1970s that the movie industry was broken, too. Accountants were driving decision-making instead of artists. (Much like academics complain that managerialism has eroded the academy.) Hollywood has focused increasingly on predictable, derivative blockbusters instead of creative, artistically adventurous works, and consigned “niche” films about underrepresented minorities to direct-to-video markets. As Pauline Kael wrote in 1974, “the system works for those who don’t have needs or aspirations that are in conflict with it; but for the others… the system does not work anymore, and it’s not going to.” The 1918 Spanish Flu “changed the movie industry forever,” pushing independent theatres out of business and consolidating many into major chains. But the “exercise in shared empathy” of communal viewing won’t likely go away. Perhaps the good news of this pandemic, writes Jordan Crucchiola, is that “from wreckage comes rebirth… the reality of digital distribution has made the marketplace in this moment more egalitarian for more movies than it’s been in ages.”  Wired


Losing the Communal Experience

Socially distanced seating might be an easy fix for post-pandemic theatres, but it will drive up ticket prices, and water down the communal experience, particularly for live performance. The Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin removed 70% of its seating last year, arranging the remainder in singles and pairs, creating a very different environment for performers and audience alike. Theatre is “the art form most dependent on togetherness and proximity,” and “socially distant theatre is perhaps a contradiction in terms.” During past plagues, playhouses have simply closed down to weather the storm. In some climates, open-air amphitheatres or itinerant companies of street players could be effective adaptations, at least for some styles of drama.  New York Times


StratFest Goes Digital

Like Disney, the Stratford Festival launched its own digital subscription service last fall, Stratfest@Home, for $10/month. It will offer recordings of stage performances, but also new documentaries, music, cooking and comedy. Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino explains that “I realized we have to become a broadcaster… and we will continue to be so going forward.”  YouTube


Higher Ed Analogy

Although I started collecting stories about theatres back in March, the comparison to higher education has certainly occurred to others since then…

Steven Mintz and Joshua Kim both wrote on the theme within days of each other in mid-October, for Inside Higher Ed. Kim focused on the advantages the PSE sector enjoyed because online learning existed as an option. “Higher education is in the learning and credentialing (and knowledge-creation) business, not in the physical campus business.”

Mintz observed that suggestions to rescue theatre have a lot in common with recommendations to rescue colleges: “greater accessibility and affordability. More diversity. A federal bailout. National funding for the arts.” But he really thinks higher ed needs optimized course offerings, enhanced student experience, high-impact teaching practices and small cohorts or learning communities. And perhaps a shared “credentials marketplace” to intensify cross-institutional collaboration.


After a thousand years of tradition, it is naturally quite difficult to imagine lasting change affecting the campus classrooms we have known all our lives. (We’re just too close to it.) It is easier to observe the inevitable as it unfolds in other sectors, like video rental stores, movie theatres or concert venues. While the analogy won’t be exact, it certainly underscores some trends that may put pressure on our traditional business models, or open up new opportunities for educators.

Higher ed will certainly return to campus, although some staff may choose to continue working from home post-pandemic. Large lecture classes should probably stay online permanently. Crowded stadiums may take longer to bounce back. Experiments with subscription models (like eCornell) or digital streaming platforms (like MITx) still have traction a decade later, and may in fact be preferable for some subjects and some students.

But we also know, intuitively, that gathering in person has unique affordances that we still can’t get from today’s webconferencing technology. There is a world of difference between watching a play recorded on video, attending it in a proscenium theatre, and experiencing it “in the round.” When we finally return to campus, I hope it will be with greater confidence in the digital tools that work, and a greater appreciation of the privilege of time we can spend together.


COVID on Campus

A couple of notable reports from US campuses yesterday…

Norwich U, a private military college in Vermont, has reported 79 cases since students returned to campus this month. The president regrets “some significant, egregious and frankly embarrassing incidents of student misconduct that have resulted in the spread of the virus on campus and our inability to contain it.”  US News

 Students returned to campus at Harvard this week, and those living in residence will be tested 3x weekly for COVID19. (Undergrads living in the greater Cambridge area, and affiliates spending 4+ hours a week on campus, will be tested weekly.) Since June, there have been 647 positive cases at Harvard, 438 of them among staff and faculty. Just 42 were undergrads.  Harvard Crimson


Since yesterday’s newsletter, there were reports of 8 more COVID19 cases associated with CdnPSE. (Many cases go unreported, but see my master spreadsheet for a running tally.)

uCalgary has reported 4 cases on campus since Jan 8. (Sorry I didn’t spot those sooner.)  uCalgary

uGuelph’s outbreak in campus residence added 4 more cases yesterday, bringing the total for this outbreak to 57.  CBC


CdnPSE Updates

3 more CdnPSEs have announced primarily remote spring and summer classes. (There remains much uncertainty, and some optimism, about Fall.) And 2 universities regretfully announced online convocations for this spring…

uCalgary has announced that Spring/Summer term will continue to be delivered with a blend of online and F2F courses. A decision about the Fall term will be made in April. uCalgary

Laurier U announced yesterday that they are “planning and preparing” for a return to campus this Fall, and to offer as many courses in person as possible. Winter, Spring, Intercession and Summer courses will be primarily remote.  WLU

Trent U announced yesterday that the summer semester will be primarily remote at both the Peterborough and Oshawa campuses. In “exceptional cases,” in-person classes may be possible as outdoor labs or classes.  Peterborough Examiner

Brock U and Mount Allison U announced yesterday that they will not hold in-person spring convocations this year. (Brock’s was to be Jun 7-11, and MtA’s May 17.) Both are planning to confer degree virtually.  Brock |  MTA



A Place to Be Yourself

Indiana U – Purdue U Indianapolis (IUPUI) released a polished, amusing :30 sec commercial yesterday. “Everyone says college is a place to find yourself… but I know who I am…  IUPUI is a lot of things, but most importantly, it’s a place to be yourself.” Some slick camera angles and transitions, although there are half a dozen scenes in which the absence of PPE is palpable. (Purdue’s president has been quite outspoken about reopening campus this year.)  YouTube


Have a great weekend!  Stay safe and be well,



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