As theaters around the U.S. have begun to slowly open and test operations under conditions limiting attendance and requiring increased sanitation, California is preparing to allow its movie theaters to reopen, starting this Friday, June 12th. California's Department of Public Health has issued new guidelines, including requiring masks worn when entering and exiting theaters as well as when buying concession items and whenever physical distancing cannot be maintained. Capacities will also be limited to the lower of 25% of theater capacity, or a maximum of 100 moviegoers.
Reservation systems are encouraged to limit the number of patrons entering the theater and provide for pre-assigned seating and activity areas, helping to stagger visits and maintain physical distancing, whenever possible and moviegoers waiting for their movie to begin should remain in their cars. Drinking fountains will be shut off and seating will be reconfigure to ensure physical distancing of at least 6 feed between attendees. The guidelines also encourage 'disposable or washable seat covers'.
High-touch and high-traffic areas, including lobbies, break rooms, stairways, elevators, credit card machines, vending machines and armrests are required to be thoroughly and frequently cleaned and disinfected. Disposable or single-use items (i.e. 3D glasses) are encouraged, or, at the very least, must be disinfected before and after a guest uses them.
The Department of Public Health added, "This may require seating every other row or blocking off or removing seats in a 'checkerboard' style (use each row but make sure no one is directly behind other patrons) so that distances are maintained in all directions. Members of the same household may be seated together but should maintain at least six feet of distance from other households."
Movie fans are anticipating the official start of the summer movie season, which usually kicks off in May, if not April. As a result of the global health crisis, Hollywood pushed all of its early summer movies back months, if not a year or more, leaving July 17th looking like the long-awaited kickoff, with Christopher Nolan's Tenet, followed a week later by Disney's Mulan. Many industry watchers, though, have questioned whether those movies would hold their planned dates if theaters around the country, especially those in California and New York were unable to open, or unable to serve enough moviegoers to ensure large openings for these major titles.
While California is plotting the reopening this week, theaters throughout the northeast, including Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware are still closed. Theaters throughout the Midwest, including Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio are also closed, as are theaters in North and South Carolina, Colorado, Washington, New Mexico and Hawaii. With so many major markets still shut down, it will be difficult for big titles to open successfully and the big chains, including Cinemark, Regal and AMC are still planning potential re-openings. These major chains which span the entire country face a more difficult reopening than do local operators and regional chains, as they must operate to comply with local health departments in all of their markets. Suddenly, operating at large scale becomes more difficult when dealing with disparate guidelines and policies from health departments across the country.
For its part, Cinemark is planning a staged re-opening, starting with a handful of cinemas in its local Dallas area June 19th, so that their executive and corporate teams can oversee reopening and design appropriate scalable plans. The chain's CEO, Mark Zoradi and CFO, Sean Gamble, discussed their plans on the company's 1st quarter earnings conference call last week. From there, they intend to reopen 1/3 of their locations, with another 1/3 to follow a week or more later and the final 1/3 opening prior to July 17th.
AMC is expected to release earnings after the market close today and will likely also discuss its reopening plans on its conference call. Last weekend, despite only 21 states keeping their cinemas closed, there were only 554 locations across the country open and operating, of those 43% (243 locations) were drive-ins, so there is a long way to go to get enough locations and screens open to assure these mid and late July openings can successfully open. The Wrap estimates that as many as 725 locations should be open by this weekend and thousands more are expected to open in the coming weeks.
Beyond the U.S., other top moviegoing markets are also struggling with re-opening. In China, theaters that had been closed since early in the year reopened, only to be closed again immediately. Recent reports suggest that, even once the market (the 2nd largest moviegoing market in the world) reopens, more than 40% of the cinema locations in the country will remain dark, never to return. It is not hard to imagine that as many as 25% of the cinemas in the U.S., especially smaller and family operators with one or only a few locations, may face the same fate.
Cinemas around the country, operating with strict capacity restrictions and increased costs due to cleaning and sanitation requirements, are unable to be able to operate profitably. Cinemark has been more optimistic, telling analysts on a call mid-April that because high capacity operations were really only a function of weekends and especially during a film's opening, and that since their theaters operated at only around 25%-30% capacity the rest of the days - they would be able to operate successfully at reduced capacities. It remains to be seen how theaters will operate, likely extending the length of each movie's run on their screens, attempting to still allow moviegoers to see the movie, despite dramatically reduced capacities in their auditoriums.
Lower capacities across the board, along with the increased customer screening and sanitation requirements will certainly strain cinema operator profits, but may make moviegoing more enjoyable for patrons. Less crowded auditoriums, no lines at the box office or concessions and much cleaner theaters are likely to seem like a much more pleasant night out for most moviegoers. This news was first reported by Variety.