With movie theaters finally lighting back up across much of the U.S., the National Association of Theatre Owners and its members are making a rare show of unity in support of CinemaSafe, a new set of health and safety protocols.
The COVID-19 response codifies several measures undertaken by theaters and many other businesses, including face coverings for employees and moviegoers, social distancing, reduced capacity and concessions and electronic ticketing.
NATO chief John Fithian and executives from AMC, Cinemark, Marcus, Imax and Regal parent CineWorld took part in an hour-long news virtual news conference Friday to tout the new program. Theater execs were joined by an epidemiologist and infectious disease expert working with NATO.
“We all know the future of our industry rides on our ability to operate our theaters safely and cleanly, and to convince the public that that is precisely what we’re doing,” AMC CEO Adam Aron said. Noting the spirit of solidarity, which is hardly the norm in the cutthroat exhibition world, he added, “Just this one time, I’ll be really happy if someone goes to a Cinemark theater or a Regal theater or the other circuits. Because it’s so important for our whole industry.”
Mark Zoradi, CEO of Cinemark, called the news conference “a historic event.” In more than three decades as a distribution and exhibition exec, he said, “I can’t ever remember an event where you’ve had the four top exhibitors in the U.S., plus Imax all on a public awareness campaign at the same time.”
CinemaSafe protocols are being followed by more than 300 companies, NATO said, comprising more than 2,600 theater locations and more than 30,000 U.S. screens. Already, individual companies have implemented coronavirus response measures and emphasized them in various forums as well as in their own individual marketing campaigns. But the idea with CinemaSafe is to set a bar for the entire industry, unlike in sectors like airlines, which has different paths taken by different companies, with Delta holding middle seats open while American continues filling them.
The measures are based on Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization and Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines, NATO said, and epidemiologists and other experts were also consulted. The green-checkmark CinemaSafe logo will appear on signage and websites for qualifying theaters.
Exhibition has been brutalized by the pandemic, which forced U.S. theaters to close in mid-March. While a smattering of theaters have reopened in some cities, the initial expectation of summer moviegoing returning full force by early July has gone unfulfilled as infection rates have surged. Box office receipts are headed for a decline of up to 70% compared with 2019, Wall Street analysts predict.
Unhinged, Solstice’s Russell Crowe action title, is opening today, with the first mega-budget title of the summer due to be Warner Bros’ Tenet following on September 3 (after an international rollout starting next week). Studios’ increasingly bold experimentation with alternative release windows has been an additional source of anxiety for theater owners.
New York and California, two crucial markets for the domestic business, remain on hold. Even though New York City’s rate of infection fell to one-quarter of one percent this week — the lowest since early March — Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently said theaters are considered “non-essential” in terms of safety.
Fithian said NATO and its members are “hoping to correct him on the facts.” He specifically countered Cuomo’s assertion that most theaters have a single air-conditioning system, meaning most auditoriums get a supply of stale, possibly tainted air. “There are multiple systems,” the NATO boss said. “Often, a six-plex will have eight air conditioning systems, so the idea that COVID would flow from one auditorium to the next is just not based on the facts.”
Dr. David F. Goldsmith, an occupational and environmental epidemiologist at George Washington University, said his review of medical literature has not turned up any evidence of any cases of COVID-19 linked to a movie theaters. Restaurants or houses of worship, however, “have been a locus for outbreaks.” He noted multiple times during the news conference the caveat that “there is no such thing as a risk-free environment” during a pandemic.
The fact that moviegoers sit and face the same direction and are not speaking or singing for extended periods is a plus, he added. The length of a typical feature has raised concerns about moviegoing. But Dr. Joyce Sanchez, an infectious disease specialist at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said the duration of a film is comparable to the length of many domestic flights or a meal at a restaurant.
Exhibitors stressed their efforts to upgrade their air filtration systems. Zoradi said a new technique called bi-polar ionization is in an “active research” phase, though it may take time to implement.
Megan Colligan, a longtime studio veteran who is now entertainment chief at Imax, said the film business is an essential part of America’s identity that can gradually be regained as society re-emerges.
“Some people go to the gym. Some people go to church. Some people need to go to the beach and surf,” she said. “And some people really do need to go to the movies. It is people’s happy place. It is a quiet, wonderful place to be able to get lost and to have an experience that really takes you to somewhere else. Moviegoing is beloved around the world and we’re seeing as we start to serve new content, I think audiences around the world are going to be really responsive to it. Having protocols in place and real personal awareness about how to behave in theaters, I think, is going to lead to a really wonderful escape for people and for families.”