US movie theatres, shuttered for months, plan July reopening

NEW YORK (AP) — After three months of near total blackout of cinemas nationwide, United States (US) movie theatres are preparing to reopen — even if it means only a few titles on the marquee and showings limited to as little as 25 per cent capacity.

AMC Theaters, the world’s largest theatre operator, said on Tuesday that it expects to have 97-98 per cent of its theatres worldwide reopened by mid-July. The National Association of Theatre Owners, the trade group that represents exhibitors, expects some 90-95 per cent of cinemas around the world will be opened by mid-July.

A lot is still “fluid,” as AMC Entertainment’s Chief Executive Adam Aron, said in a call on Tuesday with investors. But provided flare ups of the coronavirus don’t unmake plans, the industry is gearing up for a dramatic resumption of widespread business just in time for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. The Warner Bros thriller, the latest from arguably Hollywood’s most passionate defender of the big-screen experience, is slated for release on July 17.

Warner Bros didn’t comment late Tuesday, and the most recent trailer for Tenet was notably vague on its release date. But theatre owners are cautiously optimistic that Tenet will hold where it is. Aron said that AMC’s conversations as recent as Monday with Warner Bros and Disney, which has Mulan slated for July 24, have been reassuring.

The larger question might be whether moviegoers feel safe returning to theatres. Health officials have warned that large indoor gatherings are risky. Broadway theatres will remain dark through at least early September. It will be up to movie theatre operators to convince moviegoers that it’s safe to once again sit in the dark among strangers.

Employees spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at the Paragon Cineplex movie theatre. PHOTO: AP

Only recently have state guidelines allowed the reopening of theatres in California (including in the country’s top market, Los Angeles, where local officials have yet to agree). In New York City, open cinemas come in phase four of its reopening schedule; it began phase one only on Monday. Aron granted New York theatres, which constitute the second largest market, may not open in time for Tenet.

Theatres have slowly been reopening in other areas of the country, while a renaissance of drive-ins has flourished. Cinemark, which operates about 6,000 US screens has said it will begin reopening in late June and fully reopen by July 10. Cineworld, which owns Regal Cinemas, the world’s second-largest chain, is also tracking for a July reopening.

But AMC’s announcement on Tuesday signalled the most ambitious and widespread plan for a resumption of business.

“After a period of time where billions of people have endured confinement and limited social interaction, we believe that there will be a significant pent-up demand to get back out in the world,” said Aron. “Having said that, we’re under no illusions. The waters will be choppy. There may be unforeseen tosses and turns to be navigated through. And full recovery may take quite a while.”

AMC, like other chains, expects to limit audience sizes to facilitate social distancing, including keeping cinemas 25-50 per cent full and blocking out seats. Cinemas will be regularly cleaned. Ordering concessions will be possible from

an app. As a kind of test case, AMC has already opened 10 theatres in Europe. Three theatres in Norway sold 83 per cent of available tickets, said Aron.