If movie theaters suddenly reopened tomorrow, would you go?
It’s a moot question, of course: Seattle-area moviehouses have been dark since the coronavirus pandemic shut their doors back in March, and can only resume business when King County reaches Phase 3 of reopening — which doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. But movie lovers are asking ourselves a lot of questions these days: Would I feel comfortable in a movie theater? What would the theater have to do to make me feel comfortable? And is any movie worth the risk — however small — of contracting COVID-19?
Nationally, the picture is different: According to The Hollywood Reporter, about 62% of the movie marketplace was open as of the end of August, with more expected in September. Movies are beginning to make money again, though not much compared to a typical summer-blockbuster season: “The New Mutants,” opening at more than 2,400 locations nationwide, earned $7 million on its Aug. 28 debut weekend. Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated “Tenet” opened in the U.S. Sept. 3, and drew an estimated $20.2 million at the box office; the largest weekend sum since March, but still a tiny one compared to Nolan’s past films. (His previous film, the 2017 war epic “Dunkirk,” earned more than $50 million on its opening weekend; “Inception,” back in 2010, made $67 million.)
But neither will be playing here (or any closer to here than Olympia or Oak Harbor). Chain multiplexes sit empty: Though AMC, Regal and Cinemark have embarked on nationwide PR campaigns touting new cleaning procedures and encouraging patrons to return, it does no good in the Seattle market, where they’re not currently allowed to open. And owners of local independent theaters worry about their futures, turning to “virtual cinema” screenings and other creative approaches in trying to stay solvent. The Ark Lodge Cinemas, for example, struggling to pay rent and bills as a five-month closure stretches on, is selling commemorative T-shirts on its website, and is launching a GoFundMe this month.
For some theaters, the darkness may continue for a long time. The Seattle International Film Festival, which operates five local screens (three at the Uptown; single screens at the Egyptian and the SIFF Film Center), has announced that it will not reopen until 2021. Executive director Andrew Haines said that “barring a miracle,” their theaters would remain closed at least through the end of the year. “For our ability to be able to move forward and start planning in earnest, we have to put a stake in the ground,” he said, and not wait for the state to name a date.
Haines and artistic director Beth Barrett cited a number of hurdles to SIFF’s reopening: rehiring and retraining staff, learning new guidelines for cleaning/sanitizing and ventilation, figuring out how to seat patrons with appropriate social distance, managing patron traffic, etc. The Uptown, for example, has a small lobby relative to its seating capacity; how do you keep an exiting crowd distant from each other?
And Barrett pointed to the problems of scale: When Phase 3 arrives, theaters can only open at 25% capacity. That might work “if you’re AMC and you can run 16 cinemas with four people. But you need four people to run the Egyptian” — with its single screen. And they’re concerned about the health and safety of staff. “Asking them to be in a building for multiple hours, as protected as they are, that’s a huge concern for us,” Barrett said.
Other operators are more optimistic about resuming business as soon as possible. Jeff Brein, managing partner of the local chain Far Away Entertainment, already has one theater open (the Ocean Shores Cinemas, which is in Phase 3 Grays Harbor county) and is eager to reopen the remaining seven, which include the Admiral in West Seattle and the Varsity in the University District. Once the Phase 3 designation is announced, “we will waste no time,” he said, noting that he was sitting in an office full of hand sanitizer. (“It’s like Costco in here.”)
Brein said the Ocean Shores has been open since late June, and things are going well, though fairly quiet due to a less-robust tourist season. The theater (and all of Far Away’s theaters, when they open) is participating in a national program called CinemaSafe, which gives specific guidelines to movie theaters on cleaning, social distancing, air filtration, seating — “everything designed to make someone who is going to go back into a theater feel safe and comfortable.”
Ideally, Brein said, theaters could reopen by October, “so we can get folks comfortable with coming back, and we can have a reasonably decent holiday season.” He acknowledged that this year’s holiday movie season clearly isn’t going to be on the scale of previous years, and that capacity restrictions will keep the business challenging. “But if we can get the doors open, we can begin to generate revenue and bring our people back to work and pay our bills, our rents, our trash collection, then I think we’ve got a fighting chance.”
He said he’d received no pushback from patrons about mask-wearing or any other new regulation. “I haven’t had a single complaint or phone call, nobody has gone on social media to criticize,” he said. “I think a lot of people are just glad to get back into the theater.”
Barrett, of SIFF, sounded a more melancholy note. “You know how much I love movies,” she said. “I can’t wait to go back — it’s a palpable desire — but I’m not sure that I would do it.”
I’m not sure that I would, either; not just yet, anyway.