Bringing back movies safely, and reimagining the experience

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

The Economic Times (8/19/20)

On August 21st, 2020, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) put out a press release outlining a set of health and safety protocols based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organisation (WHO) for reopening movie theaters. More than 300 companies across 2,600 locations, with more than 30,000 screens across the US, have signed on to the voluntary protocols.

I worked in a movie theater for two years in Melbourne before moving to Los Angeles. My colleagues who still work in the theaters are aching to get back to their work, with a focus on opening safely alongside hospitality, retail, and gyms. Working in a theater was not just about popping popcorn and hoping the Coca-Cola dries on the seat before the next session, it also gave me some of the best friendships that I still have today. Cinemas can bring together a community both in front and behind the screen and in Australia, 2000 staff members are waiting to get back to work. In the US, there are thousands more.

This pandemic has been trial and error from the first day of lockdown. But Los Angeles has yet to open the majority of its theaters, even though these guidelines seem to be standard across many industries, with hair salons, and bars gradually opening to similar expectations.

Of course, masks should be required in auditoriums and common areas of the theaters, social distancing must be maintained, air filtration should be increased and, of course, reduced theater capacities. Opening these chains is not only about the consumer, but also the employees who are still out of work. These roles don’t just provide compensation for hours worked, but a socialization aspect that could offer many employees a chance to be with friends and co-workers at a time when mental health problems are rising.

Back in March, AMC theaters announced that there would be a capacity cap on its theaters at 50%. Of course, this was well before a second wave and at a time when information about the virus was just being released. But what was consistent with NATO’s guidelines, even back in March, was the need for frequent sanitization of ‘hot spot’ areas and a need for anyone feeling unwell to go home.

California has come a long way since the beginning of the virus, and in LA many shop owners and their employees have been able to go back to the workplace with strict reopening measures. By the end of April, almost 3 million people were unemployed in the state due to the virus, so the prospect of being able to return to work has been necessary for most, particularly for those on unemployment benefits that were not enough to cover rent, meals, and health insurance.

We’ve seen drive-in movie theaters have a resurgence during the Pandemic, with even the most grating Liam Neeson film excelling at the box office because competition has been continuously pushed. Just today, the new Aretha Franklin movie starring Jennifer Hudson, set for release over Christmas, has now been pushed to August 2021. The new James Bond film No Time to Die, Jon Chu’s adaptation of In The Heights, and Top Gun: Maverick have all moved into 2021.

But let’s not forget, though, studio films are not the only films that exist. There has been a resurrection of independent films in the last few years, thanks in part to the captivating storytelling in both Moonlight and Parasite, who each took top awards at festivals and award ceremonies. This has certainly helped independent films gain momentum at the box office as audiences aim for different materials.

Movie theaters have been reopening around the country with a 50% capacity at most, so why did AMC theaters on October 18th announce that they will be renting out a private AMC theater, starting at $99.00? These rentals allow for up to 20 people to gather in a theater together and watch a movie of their choice. Yet with the abundance of films pushing further through the calendar and the prospect for employees to get their jobs back seeming an increasingly distant aspiration, giving away a theater for just twenty people seems ludicrous.

Gene Del Vecchio in his article in Forbes on October 24th, 2020, outlined AMC theater’s potential for declaring bankruptcy. The company has burnt at least $100 million a month, but they have also suffered from a lack of understanding of how to look at its scope differently in the world of streamers. That AMC Theaters has not produced any movies, even before the now-defunct MoviePass jumped on the bandwagon, is staggering. There have been no exclusivity deals made with studios for pre-releases and their member benefits with AMC Stubs relied almost solely on the sale of concessions for profitability. Wouldn’t it be great to stream a film through an AMC app without having to wait years for a release of a highly anticipated film? Why hasn’t AMC, a company that has existed for around 80 years, been able to offer its audiences and employees more than just a reverberating question mark?

As it stands, there's no indication of seeing a film in a theater with a significantly reduced capacity has lead to a spike in cases. AMC theaters are allowing customers to rent out their theaters for 20 people, but why aren’t they showing more films. Safety is enhanced by utilizing their mobile booking service, reducing their concessions, and giving employees training to be able to cope with a changing lifestyle. It doesn’t seem to help that Los Angeles has reopened malls but has insisted movie theaters stay closed but with over 300 companies signed up with NATO and job losses within the film and service industries, companies are capable of reopening in an intelligent, consistent and gradual manner.

As studio movies bounce around the forthcoming years, more independent films can be screened, showcasing filmmakers outside award season and expanding offerings to audiences. This is a chance for specialized screenings of foreign-language films and classics. Each cinema can bring introduce a unique voice to distinguish it from other theaters, playing into Halloween themes, Christmas offerings, and perhaps even episodic premieres for cinematic shows like Star Trek: Discovery or The Haunting of Bly Manor. It may not be this simplistic, but there is so much potential at this moment for movie chains like AMC theaters to modernize its capabilities and adapt to this moment.

There is no need for AMC theaters to be renting out auditorium's. Bringing entertainment back to audiences in a safe, socially conscious way is possible and necessary.

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