On Wednesday, April 1, Cinema In Flux kicked off a new series of webinars that will begin to tackle some of the key issues facing the cinema industry during this challenging period created by the COVID-19 outbreak and its impact on exhibitors around the world.
The first session took a high-level view of operations with a focus on three broad subjects: people, process, and communication. When do theaters begin to rehire employees? What will the labor force look like when theaters are ready to return to business? What concerns face these businesses in the interim?
The panel offered significant insight into how they plan to start addressing their needs both immediately and over the coming months.
Bruce Wren, Director of Operations with Krikorian Premiere Theatres and the former VP of Training with Regal Cinemas, feels it important to “identify key employees and maintain communications,” the latter of which should include both direct contact as well as via social media engagement
When hiring back staff and staggering out the expansion of that work force at theaters again, Wren notes that companies will have to “make a decision on what the nucleus of that looks like.”
Greg Creighton, COO of Marcus Theatres, adds that they’ve already retained key leadership in theaters and among district managers. He wants management to keep in touch with team members on a weekly basis from both a health perspective as well as “to understand their thoughts with regard to coming back.”
In fact, Marcus Connect is a new social media portal set up by the company allowing employees to ask questions of anyone in the company, be they related to reopening plans or any other news or information.
The subject of consumer confidence is a natural priority, as well. Creighton added that Marcus has adopted a “visibility of cleanliness” motto — meaning that not only does everything need to look clean, customers also “need to see staff actively cleaning to know they’re taking it seriously and have confidence in the venue.”
Joe Masher, COO of Bow Tie Cinemas, breaks it down as a two-fold concern. “How do we best effectively communicate that we’re open and it’s safe to go the movies, and what kind of regulations from the state, local, and federal government will theaters have to comply with?”
The concern for displaced and furloughed employees will be what their pay structure looks like upon returning. On this subject, Creighton, Masher, and Wren unanimously stated their intention for existing locations to bring back all employees and at the same salary level they had prior to closures.
Will the labor force have changed by then, though?
Masher notes, “The concern is that some businesses are hiring right now and some staff who don’t qualify for unemployment may find work elsewhere in the interim, potentially at higher pay levels.”
On the other side of that coin, however, “many restaurants won’t be able to reopen when this is over, so a slew of hospitality staff may be looking for new jobs. That could actually benefit the theater industry.”
What should the management structure look like when that begins to happen? Wren feels strongly that it’s important to bring back existing management with proven experience. “That’s key toward reopening with stable operations immediately.”
When that time comes, many are wondering whether all theaters will reopen at once or — more likely — if it will be staggered. Creighton expects a “rolling thunder” strategy. “Don’t expect that every one of our theaters will reopen on the same day. We want the ability to scale up, but also understand that not all theaters will scale at the same time. That’s an advantage for reopening and training.”
Every opening could be treated as a special event, though, regardless of when they happen.
“We’re treating it like a new opening at existing locations,” Wren says. “Every opening should be looked at as a grand opening.”
As part of addressing those reopening strategies and staffing questions, the unknown element remains what the film slate from Hollywood will look like. Wren expects, after reopening, “potentially eight weeks for new product, but that gives us two months to rehire and establish a comfort level for patrons, which will determine how much staffing they can take on before new movies arrive.”
“The reality is we won’t be busy immediately at reopening without the content, which provides an opportunity for new employees to train and communicate with them.”
Bow Time Cinemas is also thinking ahead to the question of film product. “We plan to reopen as soon as governments allow, and we’re already planning ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s movies rotating on each screen every week at reduced or no admission price. We hope studios participate and we’ll see how many people come through the door.”
Among other concerns in the interim? Vandalism. Thousands of theaters are currently unmanned, in the dark, and potentially exposed. But that’s been planned for already.
“We kept a core team of general managers to watch over the buildings, check equipment, secure locks, and other tasks of that nature,” Masher says. Wren confirmed that his theaters have done the same.
Wrapping up this particular session, the conversation turned to the recently passed stimulus bill and what that means for exhibition. Luis Castelazo, CFO of CMX Cinemas, outlined “the three major benefits are employee retention tax credit, payroll tax deferral, and tax carrybacks.”
Masher added, “There will be two loans from the Small Business Administration and three from the Federal Reserve for cinemas,” and he specifies that “everyone should reach out to their respective legal teams for recommendations that apply to each situation and then determine how to navigate them.”
We’ll have more coverage of this webinar series in the coming weeks. For now, you can follow their updates and announcements for registration at CinemaInFlux.com.