Return of the movie theater: A pandemic guide to movie-going in 2020

An Independent examination of cinematic state of affairs

Posted 6/23/20

In a typical year, the time between the Academy Awards and the summer blockbuster season has provided moviegoers with a steady, highly publicized buildup for those big-budget titles soon to draw thousands.

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Return of the movie theater: A pandemic guide to movie-going in 2020

An Independent examination of cinematic state of affairs


In a typical year, the time between the Academy Awards and the summer blockbuster season has provided moviegoers with a steady, highly publicized buildup for those big-budget titles soon to draw thousands.

But as everyone knows --- 2020 has been anything but typical.

In the beginning

Like it did for so many organizations and industries, the coronavirus pandemic swiftly took its toll on the motion picture business, impacting everything from production to exhibition. Health concerns prodded many companies to take a variety of early precautions.

AMC Theaters, the largest movie theater chain in America, with several Valley locations, began limiting seating at all locations in early March, doing so by “capping ticket sales for each showtime in each of its theater’s auditoriums to an amount equal to 50% of the normal seating capacity.”

AMC took these steps to provide additional space between guests within all its U.S. theaters, keeping the settings clean and discouraging those with health concerns from coming to its theaters.

“The health and safety of our guests and theatre teams are of the utmost importance to AMC,” stated Adam Aron, CEO, and president of AMC Theatres, in a press release. “These are uncharted times in the United States.”

Alamo Drafthouse, with three East Valley venues, released a note to its guests March 11, in which Tim League, CEO and founder of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, stated, “We are closely monitoring daily updates and recommendations from the CDC, sanitizing seat armrests, cup holders, and tables during theater cleanings before every show.”

Cinematic alternatives

Eventually, though, as conditions worsened, movie theaters began to simply shut down. The resulting void in cinematic fare, coupled with the stay-at-home orders that left families with little choice, led to the incremental, perhaps inevitable rise in streaming service usage.

Providers like Amazon and Netflix gave film fans ample content to bide their time, but when new releases began shifting their exhibition directly to such on-demand suppliers, certain theater chains took notice, and not always with appreciation.

Case in point, an unlikely source of contention: Trolls World Tour. When Universal Pictures decided in March to release the film in theaters and on-demand, AMC was particularly peeved.

As reported on April 29 by the Associated Press, Mr. Aron said, "his company would sever relations with Universal. […] He insisted the policy would continue once theaters reopened, would apply to its venues around the world and ‘is not some hollow or ill-considered threat.’”

The issue, according to Mr. Aron, was that distributors would “unilaterally” abandon “current windowing practices absent good faith negotiations between us.” In most cases, there is a span of 72-90 days between a film’s big-screen premiere and its availability for home viewing.

As it happened, in any case, Trolls World Tour was a financial success in viewers’ homes, arguably out of necessity — what else were people to watch? — but undeniable either way. This set the trend for a number of features eventually making their debut digitally rather than on the big screen.

Not all theaters saw the drawback in such an approach, and some, in fact, jumped on-board with streaming options, even if not for new releases. On May 7, Alamo introduced Alamo On Demand, providing dozens of movies available to rent or buy from home, and FilmBar, 815 N. 2nd St., likewise provided a FilmBar Online option with several curated films to choose from.

Harking back to days gone by, drive-in theaters have also seen something of a boom amidst the chaos. West Wind Glendale 9 Drive-In, 5650 N. 55th Ave., is, for example, highlighting a current schedule of double feature presentations. In this uncertain downtime, as reported by the AP, drive-ins have been “pulling the box office weight for the depleted theatrical business.”

On a given weekend last year, they “made up 1.5% of business in North America. Now they account for over 91%, according to data from Comscore. But most studios with films playing at drive-ins are opting out of reporting earnings from the showings.”

Facing the consequences

On May 8, Alamo sent an email to its subscribers seeking feedback for what the next steps may be, apparently in anticipation of it reopening.

“We’ve been hard at work researching ways to create the safest possible movie-going experience for our guests and our staff when we reopen,” the email stated.

Customers were asked questions concerning when they would feel comfortable returning to theaters and input was sought on a number of safety procedures: “employees wearing masks and gloves at all times,” “extra seats and space automatically added around guest seats,” “hand sanitizer provided throughout the theater,” “temperatures taken daily for all employees entering the building,” and “pre-ordering food and drink when you purchase your ticket.”

The Alamo plan upon reopening was to operate “at a reduced capacity to comply with mandates and to ensure the safety of our guests and staff.”

That plan was upended a week later, however, when it was announced the Alamo Drafthouse locations in the Valley were forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, due to the “impact of the COVID-19 shutdowns.”

The intention, according to a statement by Craig Paschich, the majority owner of the franchises in Tempe, Gilbert, and Chandler, “is to use this opportunity to reorganize our finances and plan for the road ahead.” They would, the statement noted, also “ closely with the corporate team in Austin to determine our next steps.”

While unable to go into specific details, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema franchise partner Derek Dodd did state in an email to Independent Newsmedia, “I can tell you we are presently in the process of working on our reopening plans/timeline and are looking forward to reopening soon.”

AMC was also hit hard by the closures. A June 3 AP report stated the chain “may not survive the coronavirus pandemic.”

The report also cited AMC concerns that “people may be afraid to go to theaters, but hopes the desire for social distancing is temporary and that people will want to go to the movies again.”

“Movie theaters I think are in trouble,” commented Dr. Aaron Baker, professor at Arizona State University and former director of the ASU Film and Media Studies Program. “It seems like the shift to people watching movies via streaming will just be intensified by the virus and the sharp economic downturn won’t help.”

--- Dr. Aaron Baker

Concerning the Alamo bankruptcy, Dr. Baker believes that may “unfortunately […] be the fate of some other theater chains. I suppose theaters could offer fewer seats for screenings to maintain social distancing, but I don’t know if that’s economically viable.”

Making plans

Although Governor Doug Ducey began taking steps to open the Arizona economy early last month, he remained prudent when it came to movie theaters, starting May 4, “What said to us is ‘Hollywood’s not going to provide us any additional product or any new product until July 15’ … That’s the date that they’ve requested.”

Mid-July has for weeks been a key refrain. Long seen as the target date for theater reopenings, the timing was to coincide with the release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, a Warner Bros. film budgeted at more than $200 million and scheduled to open July 17.

But like a number of films prior, including popular titles like Marvel’s standalone Black Widow film, the next Fast and Furious installment, the Top Gun sequel, and the Wonder Woman sequel, which has been delayed twice already, Tenet was also postponed, to July 31 then Aug. 12.

The question, then, with so many films being deferred to later dates (essentially to a time when chains can safely maximize capacity), is what would theaters show if and when they do open? There may be a backlog of title to choose from, in addition to the staggering new releases, and there is always the possibility of playing older, familiar features. But even that would be dependent on viewers willing to take any potential risks.

Screening older movies — classics and foreign features — is familiar terrain for Chris Ayers, founder of PHX Film Collective and chief creative at Chris Ayers Creative. PHX Film Collective has since 2018 been screening such films at a variety of Valley venues, accompanied by presentations and guest speakers. That, too, came to a halt with the coronavirus.

Mr. Ayers is, therefore, looking at the entire issue as both an avid filmgoer and a programmer in his own right.

“A lot of the chains suggest operating at 50% capacity, which they can probably afford to do most of the time,” he said.

“They obviously make most of their revenue from concession sales. As a community cinema group, our financial model is different. It’s very difficult for us to sustain ourselves unless we have a large turnout, a good sponsor, and pretty good sales. It’s hard to see how we will have any of those things in the near future.”

When the time comes, PHX Film Collection will “be taking the lead from the large theatre chains on when it would be best to open and what their best practices will be when they do open,” according to Mr. Ayers.

One such chain is Cinemark, with a location at 1051 N. Dobson Road in Mesa.

While in May a decision had not yet been made as far as when Cinemark would return, Caitlin Piper, Cinemark public relations, did state in an email to the Independent, “It is important to note that the theatrical exhibition’s return to ‘normalcy’ may span multiple months, driven by staggering theatre openings due to government limits, reduced operating hours, lingering social distancing and a ramp-up of consumer comfort with public gatherings.”

On June 17, however, Cinemark announced the reopening of its U.S. theaters, which, according to a statement, “will begin with a test opening of select theatres in the Dallas area and will continue across the U.S. July 3, July 10 and July 17. There will be a handful that opens the end of July.” 

All Cinemark theaters will reopen with “enhanced cleaning and sanitizing protocols and showcase some of the moviegoers’ favorite films before welcoming this year’s newest hits.”

Employees will also undergo “extensive training prior to reopening and will wear face masks and gloves while working, in addition to completing a wellness check-in prior to every shift. Each theatre will also have a designated Chief Clean and Safety Monitor on duty to ensure the highest standards of safety, physical distancing, cleanliness, and sanitization.”

Additionally, “all public and high-touch spaces,” including concession stands, door handles, and restrooms, “will be thoroughly sanitized every 30 minutes using products identified by the EPA to be effective in eliminating COVID-19.”
AMC has also since set the stage for its reopening, slightly modifying its initial announcement after social media backlash slammed the chain for not requiring audiences to wear masks.

According to the AP, Mr. Aron said its theaters will now require patrons to wear masks upon reopening, which will begin in mid-July, and AMC Theaters wasn’t “the first to say it would defer to officials on the mask issue […] the Cinemark and Regal chains had already stated similar plans.”

Harkins Theatres, a Valley institution for decades, with 34 locations in five states, provided its own updates with a May 13 statement on its website,

During this “intermission,” the Harkins reopening team has been “diligently working with public health officials, industry partners, and governmental authorities to finalize our reopening plan and safety protocols.”

Citing the necessity of hit films noted above, the Harkins statement notes a planned reopening “a couple of weeks in advance of these blockbusters, presenting unique programming of previously released or specialty films.”

In the meantime, Harkins has offered popcorn and other snacks through its curbside pickup — “We want to make movie night at home a little better until we can invite everyone back for the real movie experience.” This economic buffer has also been emulated by FilmBar, which has been providing carryout-only options for beer/wine, tamales, popcorn, and more.

A return to movie magic

However this reopening plays out, the repercussions of the coronavirus have been felt throughout the film industry and the impact will likely linger for years to come.

“It’s pretty difficult to know what the future will bring for the film industry,” said Dr. Baker. “Some production might resume soon if it hasn’t already, although I also think there’s a good chance that it will take a vaccine for Covid-19 for filmmaking to fully return. Some people in the film industry have the economic luxury of being able to wait out the virus.”

Production has been halted on several high-profile films, including The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson, which has been delayed four months to October 2021, and COVID-era Hollywood has been forced to postpone its next Academy Awards ceremony eight weeks, to April 25, 2021.

Also, for the first time in its history, and for one year only, streaming films are now eligible for the honors. Previously, a film would need to play at least seven days in a Los Angeles County commercial theater.

The main reason many are eager to return to the theater is simply the desire to watch films in their ideal venue, with a crowd, with optimum audio-visual presentation, and with the movie magic that has been part of American culture for more than 100 years.

“The number one thing I want to do right now is going to a movie,” said Mr. Ayers, “even if it’s not a very good movie. My favorite place to be is at the cinema. I love the ritual of it, standing in line to buy tickets, the smell of the fresh popcorn, finding the perfect seat, and I still get excited every time the lights go down. I just have no idea when I’ll get to experience that again. I’m not even watching that many films at home right now because it doesn’t compare to the experience of going to the theatre.”