Masks will be optional when the largest movie theater chain reopens in the US July 15

Update: AMC has reversed its decision on its mask policy. Per a statement,

This announcement prompted an intense and immediate outcry from our customers, and it is clear from this response that we did not go far enough on the usage of masks. At AMC Theatres, we think it is absolutely crucial that we listen to our guests. Accordingly, and with the full support of our scientific advisors, we are reversing course and are changing our guest mask policy. As we reopen theaters, we now will require that all AMC guests nationwide wear masks as they enter and enjoy movies at our theaters. The speed with which AMC moved to revise our mask policies is a reflection of our commitment to the safety and health of our guests.

Less than a month out, AMC has finally put a firm date on its plans to reopen theaters across the U.S. The chain will resume service for 450 of its 600+ locations on July 15, lining up with its earlier promises of mid-July. Movie goers are no doubt a bit hesitate to return to theaters for reasons Anthony and I have already outlined, and new comments from CEO Adam Aron aren’t exactly bolstering confidence.

In an interview with Variety, the chief exec noted that theaters would not require guests to wear masks. He justified the decision — or, perhaps, indecision — with the odd claim that mask requirements were inherently political.

“We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy,” he told the outlet. “We thought it might be counterproductive if we forced mask wearing on those people who believe strongly that it is not necessary. We think that the vast majority of AMC guests will be wearing masks. When I go to an AMC feature, I will certainly be wearing a mask and leading by example.”

AMC joins fellow chains Cinemark and Regal in the decision, though all will have to require moviegoers to wear them in states like California where masks are mandatory in most indoor areas. How strictly such requirements will be enforced in theaters remains to be seen, though AMC says it’s requiring all employees to do so and will sell masks to attendees for $1 a piece.

Employees will also undergo temperature checks, but guests will not. Such screenings are largely seen as an important safeguard in the spread of COVID-19, though they’re ineffective for asymptomatic carriers. Other safeguards include electrostatic sprayers, HEPA vacuums and other technologies deployed to stop the virus’s spread.

As for what will be playing, many studios have already bumped major releases back to 2021. Though a handful of titles, including Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Disney’s Mulan are due out in the coming months.

Theaters are ready to reopen, but is America ready to go back to the movies?

Last week, AMC marked its earnings report with a somber note. The movie theater giant warned of losses reaching up to $2.4 billion, courtesy of COVID-19-related closures, adding that “substantial doubt exists about our ability to continue as a going concern for a reasonable period of time.”

AMC isn’t alone. The pandemic has had a devastating impact on theaters that rely on in-person foot traffic for the vast majority of their income. And as they’ve waited to reopen, some theaters have marked the time with mournful marquees and virtual screenings.

Now, as America begins the slow, deliberate process of reopening, movie theaters have outlined their own plans to return to normal. But it seems clear that like so many other industries, the theatrical movie business remains very uncertain.

The process will come in stages and take into account guidance from bodies like the CDC and state and local officials, as the indoor, close-quartered setups are particularly susceptible to potential transmission of the highly contagious novel coronavirus.

It’s clear that theater owners and industry shareholders are eager to start working again, but a much larger and more important question remains: Are Americans ready to return to theaters? After months of hearing about the risks of transmission, coupled with the virus’s harrowing symptoms, the cost-benefit analysis is a difficult one for movie fans who consider the theater experience a simple and essential life pleasure.

Along with the theaters’ own precautions, states will be implementing additional restrictions. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom issued guidelines under which theaters can reopen starting on June 12. Those guidelines include allowing 25% of theater capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees per theater — whichever is lower. Theater owners should:

Reconfigure, close, or otherwise remove seats from use to ensure physical distancing of at least six feet between attendees. This may require seating every other row or blocking off or removing seats in a “checkerboard” style (use each row but make sure no one is directly behind other patrons) so that distances are maintained in all directions. Members of the same household may be seated together but should maintain at least six feet of distance from other households.

Face coverings will be mandatory and theaters are encouraged to use disposable seat covers. Public water fountains will be turned off, doors should be propped open and the flow of traffic needs to be established. It’s not exactly a carefree film-going experience, but precautions should be welcomed.

It’s been nearly three months since AMC closed all of its locations. In July, the country’s largest theater chain plans to reopen “almost all” of its U.S. and U.K. locations, information that marked a rare bit of positive news for the company’s stock, which jumped 14% last Wednesday. AMC CEO Adam Aron said the chain plans to reopen 97-98% of its theaters by the middle of next month, though he added that the company’s plans are “fluid” — a fair assessment, given the ever-changing nature of our knowledge about COVID-19. (For one thing, New York City —  the country’s second-largest movie market — does not yet have a date for reopening theaters.)

Similarly, Cinemark says that it plans to reopen its theaters across the U.S. in four phraseswith the first phase starting on June 19. And the National Association of Theatre Owners — an industry trade organization — put global theater reopening at between 90 and 95%, globally during the same time frame.

The timing isn’t accidental. Christopher Nolan’s upcoming “Tenet” is set for a July 17 release. The Warner Bros. film, with a reported budget of more than $200 million, will serve as something of a trial balloon, to determine whether the benefits outweigh the risks for cautious film fans.

Other studios have begun announcing plans to reenter the market as well, including Sony/TriStar’s Selena Gomez vehicle, “The Broken Hearts Gallery,” which is slated for a July 1 release — an extremely optimistic gamble for the studios. But given Nolan’s blockbuster track record, and his devotion to the theatrical experience, “Tenet” is largely regarded as the true bellwether for the industry, followed by Disney’s delayed release of “Mulan” on July 30.

The pandemic prompted studios to launch theatrical films like Pixar’s “Onward” to VOD and streaming services much more quickly than usual, as well as circumventing theaters entirely for releases like “The Lovebirds” and “Artemis Fowl.” For the most part, studios have treated this as a temporary strategy, but NBCUniversal has been particularly bullish about the VOD success of “Trolls World Tour,” leading to tension with theater owners.

Can a big-budget Hollywood film make a profit if theaters are operating at reduced capacity? Analysts have suggested that it might work, since theaters were rarely at full capacity before the pandemic (particularly on weekdays). And with no other big releases to compete with during their initial weeks of releases, “Tenet” and “Mulan” will be able to run on many more screens than normal.

But that’s assuming moviegoers will come out, while many are wondering whether the pandemic represents the beginning of a new normal for an industry already struggling to cope with shifting consumer desires.

For example, a new study from Performance Research and Full Circle Research Co. points to a population that isn’t exactly rushing to get their butts back into seats. Seventy percent of respondents said they would rather watch a movie at home versus the theater if both options were available now. Compare that to 13% who chose the theater option. Naturally, things will likely shift in one direction over the course of the next month, and year, but such figures are — at least — troubling for theater chains.

Similarly, we conducted an extremely non-scientific Twitter poll, asking readings when they would consider seeing a movie in theaters. Of the 2,445 people who have responded to the still ongoing poll as of press time, 41% said they would wait for a COVID-19 vaccine, 23% plan to wait for next year and 20% and 15.3% chose this summer and fall/winter, respectively. It’s not a precise metric by any measure, but it does speak to a public set to approach such activities with an abundance of caution.

The entire industry will be watching the performance of films like “Tenet” closely. If those early trial balloons fail to fly, it will spell more difficult times ahead for Hollywood.

 

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