The future of movie theaters: How socially distanced seating and other new safety guidelines will change the filmgoing experience
As Yahoo Entertainment reported last week, there's been an unofficial pact formed by movie theaters, complexes and chains nationwide to re-open for business in time for the release Christopher Nolan's highly anticipated July 17 thriller Tenet, with major releases like Mulan (July 24) and Wonder Woman 1984 (Aug. 14) to follow shortly thereafter.
But what will movie theaters look like in a post-coronavirus world? Like with virtually every other facet of life, the pandemic will greatly affect — at least for the near-future — the filmgoing experience, with socially distanced seating (meaning no more sold out theaters) a near certainty, and changes to ticketing, concessions and other aspects highly likely.
"Very much in the short term, movie theaters are going to accommodate themselves to the situation primarily in terms of what public health officials are recommending," says Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer for the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO). "So there will be social distancing and limited capacity. Employees will be wearing masks and gloves and there will be enhanced cleaning and sanitation and disinfecting of the movie theater. Between every screening you'll see people disinfecting seats. You'll see much more frequent cleaning of high touch areas like the concession stand and doorknobs. And that's going to be ongoing." It's also very likely many of the moviegoers will still be wearing masks — and perhaps they'll even be provided by the theaters.
"There's a big responsibility that restaurants and bars and sporting venues and concerts and movie theaters are bearing," says Comscore senior media analyst and box office expert Paul Dergarabedian. "Because most people just assume that if your doors are open, then it's safe. It's like a de facto signing off on: 'We're open, so come on in.' But there are going to be requirements for health and safety."
Logistically, Corcoran says, exhibitors will need to reevaluate traffic patterns through their lobbies, restrooms and theaters, train their workforces to safely and responsibly interact with customers and perform enhanced cleaning protocols. "But there's a lot of thought and practice that has to go into that before theaters are comfortable opening. But they're going to open, and customers will come back — slowly at first, we think. They'll want to check it out and some people will be more eager than others. And that word of mouth, that theaters are taking it seriously, that they're doing the right thing, that the movies are back — all those things together — will bring more people in."
How close those people will be sitting to each other remains one of the biggest question marks. Each state will mandate how many people are allowed per its theaters, though a movie house's capacity and its type of seating (i.e. traditional versus reclining) also heavily factors in. "You're going to see it look different in one state compared to another," notes Greenberg Glusker entertainment attorney Ryan Webb. Explains Corcoran: "It seems to be settling on either 25 or 50 percent, and we think a percentage basis makes a lot more sense than a total number because there are widely varying capacities. Fifty people in a 400-seat theater is a different thing from 50 people in a 60- or 85- or 100-seat theater."
A handful of theaters opened earlier this month in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott allowed them to operate at 25 percent capacity. According to Variety, at least two theaters operated by EVO Entertainment opened with "airport security-style check-in" and temperature checks administered using infrared screenings. Anyone with a temperature over 100.4 degrees is turned away.
Theaters in the U.S. may want to look at Norway as a model of success when it comes to re-openings. Though only 15 percent of theaters have restarted screenings, Deadline reports they're drawing good business, with one venue in Oslo selling 96 percent of available seats. The Norwegian government allows gatherings of up to 50 people "if social distancing, sanitation and health guidelines are followed."
Where it gets a little sticky for theaters is how they seat groups. Obviously different parties will be separated by some amount of distance — be it a seat, or two, or three, but does that guideline still apply to friends and family who came together? It's an ongoing discussion, Corcoran says. But "if people are already together," he laughs, "it doesn't make a lot of sense to distance them, particularly if they're a family. And there are ways to accommodate that." That means ticketing software has to change. If a family of four stakes out four seats in one row, a ticketing site like Fandango will need to know to block out however many seats around them. "I think there are gonna be new technologies created not just for movie theaters but for all types of venues where there are tickets involved, where there's seating involved, where there's people in an enclosed space for a long period of time," says Dergarabedian.
We could also see an uptick in automated ticket scanners. "That's something that everybody's looking at, how you make sure people come in with the right ticket without it being an employee who has to touch everybody's ticket," Corcoran says. "That sort of flies in the face of what we're trying to do with social distancing."
When it comes to concessions, expect theater employees to being wearing masks and gloves to dole out popcorn, drinks and candy — not unlike what you would experience picking up a takeout food order. The types of snacks will likely be more pre-packaged — picture nacho chips in a bag versus freshly served, for instance. And "like in grocery stores, you'll look and seeing markings where you line up," says Jason Guerrasio, a senior entertainment reporter for Insider. "We'll probably see a lot more plexiglass as well."
There's also the question of how the coronavirus will impact the scale of films that do play theatrically. Tenet, Mulan and Wonder Woman all have budgets that hover close to the $200-million mark, and for years industry pundits have speculated that the unstoppable surge of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon could be the death knell for arthouse and mid-budget dramas and comedies in theaters, with only the highest pitched tentpole blockbusters demanding play on the big screen.
The movement of films like April's My Spy (which STX sold to Amazon) and next week's The Lovebirds (which Paramount sold to Netflix) from theatrical to streaming platforms indicate the pandemic may have expedited that shift. Then there's Universal, which scrapped their theatrical plans for the animated sequel Trolls: World Tour and the upcoming Judd Apatow comedy King of Staten Island, igniting a clash with two of the nation's biggest exhibitors. AMC has claimed they'll no longer program Universal releases in response, and while Regal did not go as far, they did issue a stern warning to studios consider digital releases over theatrical. Guerrasio, for one, doesn't think the rift will last too long: "They're gonna work things out because you have a Jurassic World movie coming (June 11, 2021) and you have a Fast and Furious (April 2, 2021) movie coming. Those are still a year away now, so there's time for them behind the scenes to work all that out. It might be months that you're gonna have this blackballing of Universal, but somebody's gonna work something out, because there's money to be made on both sides." As Guerrasio notes, Universal's next theatrically planned release is the Jordan Peele-produced horror remake Candyman, which isn't slated to open until Sept. 25.
The Universal squabble has been a show of major unease within the exhibition industry, however. "I think theaters right now are scared because you're seeing a lot of big studios are bypassing the theatrical release and releasing directly on home entertainment," says Webb. "And if the audience develops a taste for that and not necessarily wanting to go out to the theaters, on what hand it could come back to normal and on the other hand it could be very, very difficult to stay afloat during all this."
That doesn't mean there's any sort of permanent sea change underway, according to theatrical proponents. "Everything in this year should have asterisk after it," says Corcoran. "And anyone who says 'This is how things will be a year from now or two years from now' should be told to go sit at least six feet distant, because they don't know."
Theaters also have the luxury of some very staunch and powerful allies. Though filmmakers like Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), Martin Scorsese (The Irishman) and Spike Lee (next month's Da 5 Bloods) have brought prestige projects to Netflix in recent years, other auteurs like Nolan, Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson are still invested in their films getting theatrical releases. Unlike blockbusters, their budgets "do not require a global release to make back their money and be profitable," says Dergarabedian.
Director Josh Trank (Chronicle, Fantastic Four), whose new gangster bioic Capone was originally planned for a theatrical release before it was moved to VOD and released earlier this week, isn't in any rush to attend films as a moviegoer. "I feel like that would be irresponsible," he says. "I respect everybody else's differing opinions about this. Some people are like, 'We got to get back out there and build herd immunity and just go for it.' And then other people are like, 'No, chill out and wait this out'… I tend to fall into the 'better safe than sorry' category with stuff like this… I'd rather fall back and wait until we have the green light from the top minds in the science and medical communities, once the Dr. Faucis of the world tell us 'Please go back to the movie theaters and back to theme parks.'"
As we reported in March, drive-in movie theaters have also been primed for a comeback amid the coronavirus — and have even driven the bulk of box office receipts recently (which haven't been much) in states without stay-at-home orders where they've been allowed to operate. With the release of films like Tenet and Mulan, they could start to prosper again.
Even before Tenet opens, there could still be some release date jockeying as smaller studios or films attempt to take advantage of theaters openings in advance of July 17. We just saw that with Soulstice Studios' thriller Unhinged, the rare film to move up its release date from Sept. 4 to July 1 and which will be the first new release to open in theaters in months when it debuts two weeks ahead of Tenet.
As Variety's Owen Gleiberman points out, it could still very much prove a major financial risk for studios like Warner Bros. (Tenet, Wonder Woman 1984) and Disney (Mulan) to open too early given their hefty production costs. But while socially distanced seating will limit the number of viewers per movie theater, and enhanced cleaning may decrease the number of screenings per day, those could be made up for in lack of competition and the highest number of screens films have had dedicated to them in years.
When Tenet, Nolan's thriller that's been shrouded in intrigue (it's "possibly about a man trying to prevent World War 3 through time travel and rebirth," according to IMDb) opens on July 17, it could be playing on every major movie theater screen in the country. "So you can meet the demand that we hope will be there, and still have the reduced capacity and social distancing in the seating, initially," Corcoran says.
Dergarabedian is confident that the audiences will return to theaters, even if slowly at first: "People want to go back to those things they know and love that gave them an escape. But it's going to look different," he says. "And it's going to take some time for people to warm up. But the longer time goes on, where there's no instances, no problems, no hot spots, confidence will be restored.
"The world is going to look different, I'm not saying it's not. But the movie theater will come back."
How long the new policies will last once movie theaters do re-open remains as mysterious as the plot of Tenet: "We don't know quite how long they'll last," says Corcoran. "That's obviously going to be dependent upon the course of the pandemic and what states allow. Movie theaters are looking what states allow, and if they need to go beyond that to make customers feel safe and comfortable and come out and have a good experience. Nobody wants to go to a hospital ward, they want to go to a movie theater."
— Additional reporting by Ethan Alter.
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