Movies are back, but attending them is looking different — and probably will for months to come.
Masked patrons, gloved-and-masked employees, sanitizer stations and other accommodations to COVID-19 have changed the cineplex. Things won’t return to normal at least until there’s a vaccine. Will the movies be able to stay in business that long, especially with Minnesota currently limiting theaters to 25% capacity?
“I think there’s going to be a new normal,” said Steve Mann, president of Mann Theatres, which has eight venues in Minnesota. “I wouldn’t say we’re doing fine but we’re not going out of business.”
Solstice Studios president and CEO Mark Gill is bullish. He bet on moviegoer readiness by releasing “Unhinged” last weekend, grossing $4 million — decent, considering that more than half the nation’s theaters remain closed.
“We conducted polls — in May, asking about July — and what surprised us was 80% of moviegoers said they’d go,” said Gill. “The No. 1 thing they cited is the safety protocols and the requirement for masks, so you can see the populace getting better educated about how to stay healthy.”
A major factor in the release of “Unhinged” was the return of the world’s largest movie theater chain, AMC. Its fortunes will be closely watched, since it was in financial straits even before COVID-19 shut it down.
On the other end of the spectrum are small theaters across the country, and single-screen spots such as the Riverview Theater and Trylon Cinema in Minneapolis. Trylon programmer John Moret thinks a government program is needed, along the lines of Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Save Our Stages bill for live venues. Meanwhile, the Trylon is doing OK.
“We’ll be fine,” said Barry Kryshka, director of the Trylon, which reopened in July and had built up a reserve fund to get it through the next several months. This is not the first movie death knell he’s heard.
“I get the question a lot: ‘Hey, cinema is dying, right?’ That’s what they said in the age of DVD and VHS and color television,” said Kryshka. “Everyone has been predicting the doom of theaters all that time.”
‘Tenets’ of success
Mann Theatres reopened in June, in anticipation that Christopher Nolan’s thriller “Tenet” would arrive on July 17. Now that the much-delayed “Tenet” is finally opening on Sept. 3, Mann says the immediate future of the movie business is riding on it.
“If ‘Tenet’ opens up like [experts] think it will, there are distributors who say they’ll take movies that are now set for 2021 and move them back into 2020,” said Mann. After “Tenet,” big fall releases include “Greenland” (Sept. 25) and “Wonder Woman 1984” (Oct. 2). “I think they’re waiting to see what ‘Tenet’ does because it’s such an important test for the industry,” said Mann.
After a story was published last week in which epidemiologists said it’s unsafe to go back to AMC and other theaters, the National Association of Theatre Owners laid out guidelines for viewers. Even those guidelines acknowledge there is about the same risk as eating in a restaurant.
Mann argued that experts differ about what’s safe and what’s not. A diabetic for 40 years, he knows the risks but feels good about his theaters’ protocols. Since Mann houses have been open, no customers have reported getting sick. Two employees who quarantined after showing symptoms both tested negative. Three customers have been turned away for refusing to mask up.
Mann is encouraged by his company’s own surveys, which found patrons ready to return as long as protocols are in place. He thinks a lot depends on common sense and individual comfort levels.
Will the immediate future of movies have 32-ounce Diet Cokes? Refreshments are a concern for some, since they require unmasking. In a recent thread on the Riverview Theater’s Facebook page, one customer said they’d pay extra to attend a no-concessions screening. The Trylon isn’t selling food or drink. Meanwhile, Mann theaters are offering a full menu — patrons didn’t express concerns about food in Mann’s survey, but did insist on lots of hand sanitizer.
As theaters eye the future, Thin Mints could be more crucial than Leonardo DiCaprio. “When I was managing the Landmark [Theatres, in Minneapolis], the higher-ups would often say things like, ‘We’re basically a glorified popcorn stand. Our business is concessions but we also show movies,’ ” said Moret, noting that studios can command as much as 90% of ticket sales. “They need to sell their $7 popcorn that they get back $6.97 on because they only get $1 of the $10 movie ticket.”
A new look
Meanwhile, new movies may start to look different. Crowd scenes will be done by special effects, if at all. In the casting of love scenes, studios have minimized risk by using lead actors’ actual partners. While studio films have big corporations behind them, independent films depend on being able to insure their productions, which may become prohibitively expensive.
For now, a big title such as “Tenet” will fill nearly all of a multiplex’s screens. That will enable it to goose its grosses, since one sold-out auditorium equals four at quarter capacity.
If “Tenet” scores, other big titles such as the new James Bond movie, “No Time to Die,” and the new Pixar feature “Soul” will jockey for screens. California and New York theaters are expected to open soon. Mann believes more moviegoers will be comfortable indoors.
Moret is weighing that now. He’s eager to see “Tenet” but nervous about heading back to the multiplex. His plan is to hit a less-attended show, late at night, a few weeks from now — hopefully on the 70mm screen at Emagine Willow Creek.
“I’m planning on it. I’m really hoping to do it,” said Moret. “Imagine how thrilling it will be to be in a theater again.”
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367