A few hours before I drove to the Cinemark at Lincoln Square in Bellevue last Sunday, my editor forwarded a disconcerting email from a reader dismayed by “beyond horrifying” COVID precautions at another Seattle-area movie theater.
According to the email, attendees at a recent “Tenet” matinee at Pacific Place were allowed to choose seats without regard for their assigned spots or social distancing; the reader moved four times to avoid sitting in front of, behind or next to another moviegoer.
Grant from Capitol Hill did not mince words in his review.
“For an organization that hasn’t seen a dollar in five months you would think that they would have an inkling as to what has been happening in 2020,” he wrote. “If I had my choice I would shut them down completely pending a thorough examination as to how they do business.”
(Per AMC’s Safe & Clean policy, purchasing a seat automatically blocks the surrounding seats. By press time, AMC had not responded to a request for comment on enforcement of distance-minded seating rules.)
With some theaters in Greater Seattle — AMC, Cinemark, local chain Far Away Entertainment — having reopened in response to loosened coronavirus restrictions in Washington state, would-be moviegoers are wondering if big-screen flicks are worth the risk. Is there such a thing as safe moviegoing in a world without a coronavirus vaccine? How will social distancing be enforced, if at all? Will folks keep their masks on during an activity intrinsically tied to snacking?
The University District AMC was my first neighborhood hangout when I moved to Seattle last October. The A-List — three movies per week for $20 per month — was invaluable during the rainy season. Point being: Watching good, bad and ugly movies was a go-to prepandemic treat for me. But even as cinemas reopen with COVID-era guidelines, the threat of infection and a depleted roster of blockbusters has me hesitant to go back.
Here’s what I found when I returned to the movies for the first time since … The Before.
At Cinemark last weekend, the theater replaced posters for blockbuster movies with proclamations of coronavirus guidelines. There was a guest safety checklist — masks required except when eating or drinking, contactless payment and ticketing, social distancing rules, etc. — plus cheeky, movie-themed posters to the same effect. “I’LL BE BACK … IN 30 MINUTES” is written above an outline of the Terminator with a spray bottle, representing bathroom cleanings every half-hour; Rocky Balboa proclaims “WE’VE TRAINED FOR THIS,” and Wonder Woman explains that “A LITTLE DISTANCE CAN WORK WONDERS.” The signs outnumbered the hand sanitizer bottles scattered throughout the lobby, but not by much.
The employee manning the box office was so excited about being back at work that his mask kept creeping up his chin (fear not, he diligently adjusted it). I explained that I hadn’t checked the listings; he immediately recommended “Tenet” and gushed about his anticipation for the latest Christopher Nolan movie. We talked through the hype that surrounded “Inception” in 2010, trading theories about whether or not Leo ever made it out of limbo. We agreed to disagree that my favorite Nolan film, “Interstellar,” forsakes emotion for an intricate plot.
Selecting my assigned seat on the touch-screen monitor — per Cinemark, seats adjacent to other parties are automatically blocked upon purchase, in addition to capacity limits — I went with “Honest Thief.” (I saw “Tenet” last month at Oak Harbor’s Blue Fox Drive-In and wasn’t impressed.)
“Honest Thief” is the latest feature in Liam Neeson’s late-career arc of thrillers in which he plays an over-the-hill everyman who reluctantly becomes a hero (“Taken” and its sequels, “The Grey,” “The Commuter,” “Non-Stop”; the titles rarely span three words). The new action flick led the box office last weekend, unbeknownst to me when I bought my 6:30 p.m. ticket. With staggered showtimes (due to COVID) and few enticing new movies (due to COVID), there wasn’t a ton to choose from.
Brave moviegoers get a bit of a break at the concession stand, where “welcome back” prices were in effect. A large drink went for $3.50 and a large popcorn for $5. It’s a bit of a relief when you’re used to paying $8 apiece.
There were a few guys in line before me at concessions, but walking through an empty hallway to the very last theater on the right, I felt like I had the place to myself. Some folks did, as a private screening was among the eclectic mix of movies currently showing: “The Empire Strikes Back,” Halloween classics like “Beetlejuice” and “Hocus Pocus,” international films like the “Train to Busan” zombie sequel “Peninsula.”
Outside every theater was a notice of the in-theater cleaning policy — in the morning and before every showing — plus a box of wipes for viewers who want to wipe their seats and armrests down again.
The seat I picked was only a few away from another couple, so I abandoned that spot and went closer to the screen. Assigned seating was not strictly enforced — a representative for the chain said “Cinemark is asking moviegoers to play their part to ensure we can prioritize the health and safety of our employees, guests and communities,” but employees will not monitor individual theaters for mask and distancing rules — and the 10 or so folks with me settled where they could get spaced out.
It wasn’t a problem for some Sunday evening Neeson action, but a relatively busy theater could run into issues of maintaining 6 feet of distance around viewers — especially when relying on voluntary common sense.
The Cinemark rep also noted that face masks, which are mandatory for all guests and employees, will be provided for those who don’t bring one. “And, if they refuse to wear a mask, we will kindly offer them a full refund,” the company said.
Mask-wearing being unregulated contrasts local chain Far Away, which said it will monitor adherence to this tenet of COVID protocol. Per my status quo, I tired of popcorn midway through the bag and the previews — which, despite a dearth of blockbusters, ran 30-plus minutes and included another upcoming “Neeson is too old for this crap” thriller — and masked back up, slipping my straw under the cloth as I spent more time thinking about COVID particles and how I hadn’t spent this much time inside a room other than my apartment in months.
Cinemark said it is taking measures to “raise the fresh air rate” by utilizing supply fans and adding “refresh and replace cycles” to increase circulation of air from outside, and the company said its theaters use vacuums with HEPA filters.
This is likely too much information, but the most effective social distancing technique at the theater, in my opinion, was in the men’s bathroom: Every other urinal was covered to encourage physical distance.
Watching a silly, fun movie with low expectations made me feel like an A-Lister again — like I already paid for my pass this month and I might as well get my money’s worth. I used to love watching movies like that at the U District AMC.
But this wasn’t the same, and nothing felt very “normal.”
“Honest Thief” wasn’t my guilty pleasure pick; there just isn’t much to see at the movies right now. And the reasoning has gone from “I may as well, it’s just two hours,” to “Am I going to get someone sick for Liam Neeson?”
My favorite part of the moviegoing experience might be the post-credits camaraderie, when folks file out into the hallways laughing, sharing theories, debating different scenes, their eyes bulging with excitement and their pupils readjusting to the light. On Sunday, everyone gathered their things and chatted quietly among themselves on the way out like we were leaving evening Mass. I walked back to my car in the rain, missing my couch.
Yes, the silver screen has returned to Seattle. But no matter how many coronavirus precautions are put in place, it’s hard to imagine going to the movies and ignoring the nagging worry of infection. And if our collective incentive to return to the theaters is golden-hearted bank robber Liam Neeson fighting a crooked cop, I think I’d rather keep watching from home.