After seven months of darkness, some movie screens in the Seattle area will light up on Friday. Newly revised Washington state coronavirus restrictions are allowing cinemas to reopen at 25% capacity, and while some operators are choosing to remain closed, others are eagerly preparing to resume business — for an audience that may still be deciding whether to return.
“It is a personal choice, and I understand that and I don’t want to minimize the concern that people may have,” said Jeff Brein, managing partner of the local chain Far Away Entertainment. “I think what we can do is what retailers have done, what restaurants have done … and that is to do everything that we can to provide a safe environment.”
Far Away is reopening seven of its eight theaters, including the Admiral in West Seattle and the Varsity in the University District, on Friday. (The eighth, Ocean Shores Cinema, reopened in the summer, as it is in Grays Harbor County, which is in Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan.)
Also reopening Friday are 14 multiplexes in the AMC chain across the state, including Pacific Place in downtown Seattle. And Cinemark announced Tuesday that it will reopen its four theaters in the state Friday, including two at Bellevue’s Lincoln Square and multiplexes in Federal Way and Tacoma.
Most of the Seattle area’s locally owned theaters — including SIFF, Majestic Bay, Ark Lodge, Grand Illusion and Northwest Film Forum — have announced that they will not reopen at this time, citing both safety and business concerns. (One exception: the Edmonds Theater, which will open weekends only.) “It’s going to be extremely challenging at 25%,” Brein acknowledged. And some of the chain multiplexes will remain dark: Regal Cinemas has announced a nationwide closure for the foreseeable future.
But Brein said he’s eager to demonstrate to moviegoers that it’s safe to return to cinemas again, and his theaters are reopening after a flurry of preparations and adaptations. Far Away, AMC and Cinemark are all following the guidelines of CinemaSafe, a voluntary, nationwide set of health and safety protocols for cinemas developed by the National Association of Theatre Owners. The protocols, created with a team of epidemiologists (and, Brein said, approved by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert), encompass guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Some of these new protocols will be visible and obvious: masked employees and patrons, abundant hand sanitizer in the lobby, rearranged concession lines that are farther apart than before, doors propped open before and after shows to minimize touching of door handles, staggered start/end times to control lobby crowds, and fewer screenings overall, at least until the holiday season.
And while Brein said Far Away theaters won’t be switching to reserved seats (which AMC and Cinemark have in many of their theaters), or blocking off rows, patrons will be expected to choose seats distant from others. “We like to say, moviegoers are the original social distancers,” Brein said. “Nobody wants to go into an auditorium and sit on top of somebody else, unless the auditorium is really full.”
Employees will be monitoring every screening to make sure everyone is comfortably spaced; if there’s a problem and neither party wants to move, “we’ll help resolve that,” Brein said. He’s confident that, at 25% capacity, “there ought to be plenty of room to spread out.”
And yes, patrons are required to wear face coverings in the lobby and while seated in the auditorium, unless they are eating or drinking. (Concessions will be the same as before, but once-communal items like butter on popcorn and mustard on hot dogs will be applied by staffers on request.) Once done with popcorn or soda, expect to mask up again. Brein said staffers will be monitoring the cinemas and if they see someone who has obviously finished eating and is still maskless, “we’ll politely ask that they put it on.” He pointed out that mask-wearing in the auditorium is not only part of CinemaSafe’s protocols, it’s also a state-mandated requirement.
Other changes will be less immediately obvious, such as rigorous cleaning of theater seats with disinfectant between screenings, new procedures involving cleaning/disinfecting and increased outside air being piped into auditoriums. Brein said all of his theaters have had maximum air filters installed and air circulation adjusted. This means a bit of a run on the heating bill, as heating systems need to work harder because of colder outside air coming in, but “if it keeps people healthy that’s what we’re going to do.”
Moviegoers wanting to learn more about CinemaSafe can peruse a detailed PDF online describing the protocols. AMC and Cinemark also have detailed descriptions on their websites of the new realities of pandemic moviegoing.
Reopening theaters also face a problem unrelated to health and safety: the lack of blockbuster films. With theaters across the country closed for months, movie studios have pulled most of their big-ticket offerings. Many have moved to next year; others (such as “Mulan” and Pixar’s upcoming “Soul”) are bypassing theaters and being released for home streaming.
Brein acknowledged that “it’s disappointing that we are not being able to show the tentpole releases” originally scheduled for fall release. Because theaters in New York and Los Angeles — the two centers of the film industry — remain closed, he explained, studios are continuing to hold on to their most prestigious product until a later date. He’ll initially reopen with Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” the superhero movie “The New Mutants,” the bank robber drama “Honest Thief” with Liam Neeson, and the Robert De Niro comedy “The War with Grandpa.”
“I don’t doubt that people who want to get back into the theaters are going to find good movies to see,” Brein said
And he’s hoping that moviegoers will feel good about returning, in uncrowded theaters, as we all await the end of the pandemic. “This industry is going to take off like a rocket in 2021,” Brein said. “We just need to get to that point. We know the numbers are going to be limited, initially, but you’ve got to start somewhere. So let’s prove to folks that we’re going to be responsible about this, and let’s get it going.”