Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp will allow movie theaters in his state to reopen starting April 27, but exhibition insiders stress that it would be nearly impossible for most major chains to start business back up by next week.
Movie theater circuits believe that it reopening won’t just be like flicking a switch. AMC Theaters, Regal Cinemas, Cinemark and other chains have furloughed or laid off almost all employees, and locations across the U.S. have been entirely shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. It would take longer than a week, insiders say, to re-hire staff and then train them in proper safety procedures.
Kemp’s announcement, which is in line with President Donald Trump’s first phase in the process of reopening the country, will require companies to observe strict social distancing measures and implement enhance sanitation. Workers will also have to be screened for illness, the governor said.
But even if employees were able to return to work swiftly and without the virus, there’s also a question of liability. Theater owners are still exploring legal issues they could face, should audiences get infected with COVID-19 from going to their movie theater. It’s uncertain whether the burden would fall on the exhibitor or the state.
As it stands, theater chains are still trying to determine what their safety procedures will be when they’re allowed to reopen. Some, such as AMC, have signaled they may take patrons’ temperatures, while others, such as Cinemark, have played down that possibility. They are also working out the best way to ensure that their customers adhere to social distancing dictates, and are outlining how to seat moviegoers to ensure they aren’t coughed on and are six feet away from other patrons. And that’s if customers can be convinced it’s safe to return in the first place.
Another major impediment is the lack of fresh content available to show on the big screen. Hollywood studios aren’t releasing new movies for at least a month, when Universal’s comedy “The King of Staten Island” opens on June 19 and Warner Bros.’ sci-fi thriller “Tenet” debuts on July 17. Almost all other films scheduled to release this summer have been shelved or postponed, except for Disney’s live-action “Mulan” on July 24 and Warner Bros.’ comic book adventure “Wonder Woman 1984 on Aug. 14. That means even if exhibitors are able to turn the lights back on in some venues, there’s not a lot of compelling product to offer. They would likely be forced to screen library titles and a few lower-budget indies.
As part of the reopening process, businesses will still have to limit gatherings to fewer than 10 people. If that’s the case, it might not be financially viable for venues to reopen for so few patrons.
AMC and Regal spokespeople did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Cinemark, citing comments made by CEO Mark Zoradi on a liquidity call last week, said “Cinemark is currently working toward a mid-summer opening date, contingent upon health and safety regulations, as well as availability of studio content.”
A spokesperson for the National Association of Theatre Owners said that “individual movie theater companies, in line with federal, state, and local guidelines, and in cooperation with health officials will decide for themselves when it is appropriate to reopen.”
It’s possible that independently owned theaters are more equipped to be up and running by next Monday — though it’s unclear if mom-and-pop shops would be willing to take the risk. At least one Georgia-based theater owner, Christopher Escobar of Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, said he expects his cinema to stay closed until June, at best.
“While we’ve been hurting being closed, this certainly comes as a rather last-minute surprise,” Escobar told Variety. “While nothing would make me happier than all of this being over and getting the ‘all clear,’ other than there being political pressure, I haven’t seen anything of the sort.”
Despite suggestions from government officials, he’s not convinced that resuming business at his venue is the best option for the time being.
“I’m not a public health expert,” he said. “I just know I’m not getting an indication from actual public health experts that re-opening is a good idea.”