As a slate of new studio releases finally plan to make their way to theaters, cinemas around the nation have already begun opening their doors to welcome patrons back to the movies. The domestic reopening effort, however, won’t occur simultaneously at a national level.
Although nearly every cinema in the United States closed over a span of four days in mid-March, the domestic reopening process has been fractured across state lines. Certain states, such as Georgia and Texas, have allowed cinemas to reopen since April, while others, such as New York and New Jersey, have yet to provide a timeframe for reopening.
The piecemeal campaign to reopen cinemas in the United States is facing the additional challenge of inconsistent policies between states. In an effort to address those gaps, members of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) came together to create CinemaSafe, a protocol of uniform health and safety guidelines in place across 315 cinema operators.
“With so many different guidelines in different states, we believe it is critical that movie theaters commit to following basic guidelines no matter where they are, so moviegoers can return to their favorite pastime with confidence in our commitment to their health and safety,” said NATO president and CEO John Fithian, at a press conference unveiling the CinemaSafe campaign.
The guidelines, developed in consultation with epidemiologists and industry experts, include policies such as a mask requirement for staff and patrons alike, reduced capacity in each auditorium, increased air filtration measures, enhanced cleaning, and a decreased reliance on touch-points through mobile ticketing and modified concessions sales.
“On reviewing the protocols in place here, I think they address two of the three major factors that determine activity risk. When we think about activity risk, including going to the movies, there’s really no activity outside of the home that has no risk. The three determinants are distance, dose of potential virus, and duration,” said Dr. Joyce Sanchez, an infectious disease expert at the Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin Network.
Sanchez cites social distancing between seats in auditoriums under reduced capacity, along with adherence to mask requirements, as factors that mitigate the risk of attending a movie theater during the pandemic. As for the third concern–– duration, the amount of time people are congregated in an enclosed space––Sanchez concedes it cannot be controlled when it comes to the moviegoing experience. “When I think about that variable in terms of risk, it’s pretty similar to the amount of time on a short-distance domestic flight, which a lot of America is doing at this point, or spending time at a restaurant,” she said.
“There have been no published medical or epidemiology findings that show a link between going to see a movie and contracting COVID-19. Having said that, there is no there is no ironclad guarantee that there is zero risk,” added Dr. David F. Goldsmith, an occupational and environmental epidemiologist at Georgetown University. “With these protocols, we are taking advantage of the skills of the staff, infectious disease experts, industrial hygienists, and people who were involved in the HVAC system to increase the air circulation. Their clear cut goal is to reduce, as much as possible, some possibility of there being a risk of contracting this virus.”
The press conference, organized by the National Association of Theatre Owners, featured the participation of the heads of the top four circuits in the United States. Speaking on behalf of AMC Theatres, CEO Adam Aron noted that collaborating on a national reopening protocol was crucial to begin recovering consumer confidence in the midst of a global pandemic.
“From the day we shut down back in March, we knew at AMC––as the largest exhibitor in the world––that opening up our theaters was the single biggest, most important issue to restore consumer confidence, so that our industry could recover from what has now been more than five months of a shut down here in the United States,” he said. “We also realized it wasn’t enough to just have an AMC safety initiative, we needed to participate in an industry-wide initiative: consumers can’t always distinguish between one circuit or another, one theater over another. They need to know that moviegoing is safe, wherever you go see a movie, and whatever theater that you visit. That’s what CinemaSafe is all about.”
In June, AMC Theatres found itself at the center of a national debate over businesses’ face mask policies when it announced it would strongly encourage, but not require, masks in their cinemas. “That announcement was made at six o’clock on a Thursday evening. By seven o’clock, our customers told us loudly that it was not enough,” said AMC’s Aron. “We had something like 50,000 social media contacts in the first few hours, and we instantly knew that just strongly encouraging masks is not enough. By the next morning, we announced that we were going to step up our game, that we’re going to listen to our customers and require masks. I’m very pleased that Regal and Cinemark did the same thing so it’s easy to enforce this policy, because this is what moviegoers want––we know that because they told us––and we will be enforcing it very carefully. We will not let people into our theaters if they don’t wear masks. We will not let them stay in our theaters if they don’t keep their masks on, except for those few minutes when they’re sipping on their [soda] or eating their butter and salted popcorn.”
Enforcing that mask policy has been a recurring question from moviegoers and industry observers waiting to go back to the movies. Mark Zoradi, CEO of Cinemark Theatres, which has already opened select locations across the country, noted mask enforcement has been a “small or non-existent issue” in his circuit thus far.
“The vast majority of people are showing up with their mask,” he said. “We have very good signage on our website, our app’s ticketing function, and at the door that they’re required. All our employees are wearing them,” he said. “For the very few [patrons] that show up that don’t have them, we’re offering a mask for free and explaining the situation. There has been very little pushback on it. In the isolated case or two that we’ve had, we’ve just explained the situation and offered a refund. It’s notable there have been no incidents at 60 of our theaters in multiple states. I think the word is out that this is the policy with other national retailers, from Target to Costco. I think the consumer understands the situation at this point: if they’re going to go into a public retail environment, masks are required.”
According to Dr. Sanchez, distancing between seats, required mask wearing (while minimizing the time spent consuming concessions), and decreasing interactions with staff, other patrons, and high-touch points, can help decrease the risk of moviegoing during the pandemic. She also believes assessing one’s own local environment is crucial when making the decision of returning to the movies; is the pandemic in the area under control? Or i there a rise in cases?
“Some of the factors we think about are the environment; the person and the behavior they’re engaged in; and the virus,” she said. “The virus is the same, that variable is fixed. One community may have higher levels of virus transmission than others, but for the most part the way the virus behaves is the same. Then we look at the behavior that people are engaging in, and when we think about bars, we think about people coming together, drinking alcohol or non-alcoholic beverages, but coming together and speaking without wearing masks for the majority of the time that they’re there. In restaurants, the situation is similar when people are coming together in an enclosed environment mostly without masks, because the primary purpose of a restaurant is to consume food and beverages. Now, when we think about a movie theater, that same contained environment [is the same] as a place of worship or as a restaurant, that doesn’t change, but the behavior is different. People, for the most part, are going to be wearing masks. People are not speaking, they are not singing, doing the type of activities that propel respiratory droplets.”
Cineworld and Regal CEO Mookie Greidinger backed the doctor’s observations, noting cinemas are unique among indoor communal activites. “We all need to remember that in the cinema you sit in one place, everybody is looking in the same direction, there is almost no talking. There is almost no movement through the running time of the movie.”
The press conference served, in part, as a response to the ongoing lack of a timeframe or guidelines for cinemas to reopen in the state of New York, home to the most lucrative market in the country. In a recent press briefing, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo deemed cinemas to be “less essential” than gyms or bowling alleys, defending his stance by questioning the circulation of air in cinemas.
“I noticed that Governor Cuomo in New York recently said that movie theaters have just one air conditioning system,” clarified Fithian. “Obviously, we are hoping to correct him on the facts because there are multiple systems. Often a six-plex will have eight different air conditioning systems. The idea that COVID would flow from one auditorium to the next is just not based on fact.”
“I’ve seen a lot of publications that seem to think our systems are taking air from one screen and putting it in another, or the circulation is going from one screen to another. Most of the cinemas in the world, their systems are independent between each screen, this is also very important to understand,” reiterated Greidinger.
Despite these challenges, the executives participating in the press conference expressed faith they could recover consumer confidence in the United States through the CinemaSafe guidelines. In other countries, where cinemas have been open as early as June, admissions figures have fluctuated largely due to the lack of new Hollywood releases. In some cases, titles have outperformed even pre-pandemic expectations, but a real measure of the audience’s appetite for moviegoing will likely occur over time, as more audiences feel comfortable returning to theaters. Exhibitors are hoping the long-awaited wide release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet on September 3 will help spur that recovery.
Cineworld’s Greidinger nevertheless has faith in the industry’s resiliency to see it through this crisis, regardless of how long it takes. “We need to remember our industry is more than 120 years old,” he said. “This industry has passed through wars, revolutions, recessions…this is not the first pandemic in our history.”