There are finally some signs of hope for movie theatre owners who have been in various forms of forced hibernation for the past year due to the global coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 infection rates are declining, vaccination rates increasing and now cinemas in England, Quebec and New York City are setting dates to reopen their doors, albeit with reduced capacity and, in some cases, prohibited concession sales.
England has identified May 17th as the date for indoor cinemas to reopen, now that Prime Minister Boris Johnson detailed a four-step road map to easing the country out of lockdown. As with all scheduled activity during the course of the pandemic, sticking to this date will depend on whether health officials determine health conditions are improving with a decrease in infections, hospitalizations and deaths. Even so, Universal Pictures felt confident enough to move up the date for the next James Bond film, “No Time To Die,” up by one week to September 30, 2021 after twice delaying the film from its original April 2, 2020 bow.
In Canada, cinema operators in Quebec can light up their projectors starting this week, on February 26th. Seating will be capped at 50 percent and all moviegoers will be required to wear a mask while watching a film. Ordinarily this would make it difficult for patrons to enjoy popcorn and other refreshments, however the sale of concessions has been forbidden until further notice. Vincent Guzzo, the head of Guzzo Cinemas in Quebec, has said he won’t reopen his theatres due to the concessions rule, or has he refers to it, #popcorngate.
No way I’m taking public? for uneaten? to open my theatres. I don’t want ?$, I want the right to sell ?!#popcorngate is about all the incoherency of this GOV’s political decisions. @CinemasGuzzo will remain closed for spring break. https://t.co/o1BMsKR0re @francoislegault
— Vincenzo Guzzo “MrSunshine” (@Guzzo_Vincenzo) February 26, 2021
Without a doubt, the announcement that movie theatres in New York City could finally reopen on March 5th was cause for the most excitement as evidenced by the numerous media stories trumpeting the news. The move comes just two weeks shy of cinemas having been closed for an entire year. Theatres are limited to 25 percent seating capacity, though unlike Quebec, no more than 50 patrons are allowed in any auditorium at one time, no matter how large the venue.
This last requirement underscores that no politician, no matter their party or leanings, has been capable of properly navigating or handling the COVID-19 pandemic. The reason behind this limit, in part, is to help reduce foot traffic and the number of people congregating in any one area to prevent community spread of the coronavirus. Yet using this logic, restaurants should not be allowed to increase their capacity by placing tables on public sidewalks. Instead, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who allowed movie theatres outside of New York City to remain open since reopening last October, has increased indoor dining capacity to 35 percent, extended the hours bars can operate and let gyms operate at 25 percent capacity throughout the winter.
Each of these out-of-home destinations has had known outbreaks of COVID traced back to them, whereas to date, cinemas have not, as we previously noted and as was stressed by the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) in their statement about the reopening of New York City theatres.
Theater owners are pleased with the announcement that New York City movie theaters will be allowed to safely reopen. Stringent voluntary health and safety protocols have made it possible for cinemas across the country to operate safely and responsibly at higher capacity limits for many months without a single outbreak of COVID-19 being traced to movie theaters. New York City is a major market for moviegoing in the U.S.; reopening there gives confidence to film distributors in setting and holding their theatrical release dates, and is an important step in the recovery of the entire industry. We look forward to expanding the capacity from 25 percent to 50 percent in the very near future so that theatres can operate profitably.
Besides health, NATO is highlighting two important concerns related to the reopening of movie theatres. The more obvious issue is that of content. The New York metropolitan area and Los Angeles account for 15 percent of the North American box office. San Francisco is also a big market. With cinemas in all three of those markets closed over the past 12 months no studio was willing to release a blockbuster title. There was also the question of whether audiences would even show up once theatres were able to reopen. Fortunately, the massive grosses over the recent Lunar New Year in China suggests they might. It doesn’t hurt that 12 weeks after its release, and while available at home via premium video on demand (PVoD), “The Croods: A New Age” is still attracting moviegoers to the limited number of theatres that are open.
This is why, as someone covering this industry based in Los Angeles, one of the questions I was most often asked over the past year was when I thought New York and Los Angeles would allow movie theatres to open. One of the many unspoken realities the pandemic uncovered about our industry is that when key North American markets are closed, it affects Hollywood film releases in territories all over the world.
The more subtle point NATO was making is that, while it’s great that movie theatres in New York City can open so that distributors feel confident in releasing new titles, it is impossible for an exhibitor to “operate profitably” when attendance is capped at 25 percent capacity. For cinema operators who can’t sell concessions, like those in Quebec, it’s even worse.
Despite the constraint on attendance some independent New York City cinema operators such as the Film Forum and the IFC Center will reopen on March 5th. So will the nation’s largest theatre chain, AMC, which within hours of Governor Cuomo’s announcement publicly stated they would reopen all 13 of their New York City based multiplexes. Regal Cinemas also has theatres in New York, however the second largest exhibitor in the territory has no plans to reopen in early March. On Thursday Regal issued an official statement on the matter:
We are encouraged by the recent announcement regarding the opening of theatres in New York City. Big movies are made for the big screen and once LA opens, we are confident in the studios holding their release dates for news movies allowing us to reopen our theatres.
Based on California’s four tier reopening system, Los Angeles is presently in the most restrictive, purple tier. To advance to tier three, or the red tier, Los Angeles County will need to lower the number of new daily COVID cases to 7 per 100,000 residents. That figure is presently hovering at 12.3 per 100,000 residents and has never fallen below 9. The county has had 1.19 million confirmed cases of COVID and 20 thousand deaths since the start of the pandemic; both figures that are more than twice that of any other county in the United States.
Translation – unless the state of California revises its tiered reopening system or cases drastically decrease, or without external political pressure, it could be a few months before movie theatres in Los Angeles reopen. The vaccine rollout, which has been steadily improving could expedite that timeline. To date, more than 1.9 million vaccines have been administered to the counties 10 million residents and of those, 500,000 were second doses.
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