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Theater Owners Chief on Plans to Reopen Cinemas After Coronavirus Crisis

Vista Theater Los Angeles Movie Theaters
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

The coronavirus has brought the movie theater business to the edge of ruin. Exhibitors have shuttered cinemas across the country, leaving them without any way to pay the bills.

Thanks to the federal stimulus, however, many of those circuits have been saved from bankruptcy, according to John Fithian, CEO of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. The exhibition industry lobbyist says that owners are still pushing for more government aid, but they’re also preparing to implement new safety measures designed to allow them to turn their marquee lights back on in July with the release of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” for Warner Bros. and Disney and Niki Caro’s “Mulan.” That’s requiring exhibitors to come up with innovative ways to ensure their patrons are adhering to social distancing guidelines, as well as the formidable challenge of making sure that customers feel safe returning to cinemas before medical professionals have developed a vaccine for COVID-19.

In his first full-length interview since the pandemic broke out, Fithian spoke with Variety about the steps cinema owners are taking to keep their businesses coronavirus-free, what plans are underway to lure back customers and what he makes of Georgia’s decision to reopen theaters before public health officials said it was safe.

When NATO was pushing for the stimulus, you argued that if it failed, most of your members would be bankrupt. Has it solved theater owners’ issues?
We’re at the halftime. Many elements of the [stimulus] have been vitally important, but other components, such as loan guarantee provisions, haven’t been fully implemented. What has worked is that the government has been able to provide support to our thousands of unemployed workers through Paycheck Protection loans. There have been some problems with the way that this support was implemented, and we’re lobbying Congress right now so that the next piece of legislation will improve on that. The report from the field is that some of our members have been able to get small business loans, but our medium-sized and larger members have not.

AMC and Cinemark have suggested that they will be able to reopen in June or July. Does that timeline seem feasible?
Right now, our plans are based on the advice of the CDC and health officials, who project that the number of new cases will have dissipated enough by that point where it will be safe to open up with the right precautions. First, they’ll start by showing repertory films. That will allow them to have systems in place so they’ll be able to showcase big movies in July. There are possible curveballs. One is that the decline in new cases doesn’t continue or there’s some sort of reversal and that leads states to hold off on reopening society. Another is that we as a country and as a global culture succeed in tamping down the virus, but it comes back much worse in the winter or early next year. If that comes to pass, we’ll have much bigger global economic issues than just theaters closing. We’ll be talking about a depression and not a recession.

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John Fithian sees cinemas returning with repertory films in order to develop safety measures that ready them for bigger business. Rob Latour/Shutterstock

If the recovery is regional and not national, with hot spots like New York City slow to reopen, will that mean that studios will be hesitant to open new releases in theaters? 
Absolutely. Some states will be able to reopen relatively quickly. Others may take a while. The question is how long will that take? We’re not just a national industry. We’re a global industry. Major studios won’t release big, wide-release films if only a couple of states and a handful of countries in Europe are open. They need a wider footprint. We don’t need 100% of markets to be in business, but we need a majority of them.

The governor of Georgia allowed movie theaters to reopen on April 27, a move that some public health experts called dangerous. What’s your reaction? 
We leave it up to each individual company to make a decision for themselves about when they want to open. Some smaller operators may decide it makes sense to open and play whatever product they can get their handson, but most companies that have multiple locations won’t do that until they can play new releases. That’s not going to happen if you can only show movies in one or two states.

Do you have a sense of how many theaters will be open in Georgia this week?
I have not talked to one exhibitor who is going to open up this week.

What steps are being taken to ensure that people are safe when theaters start showing movies again?
There are so many logistical challenges that we’re sorting out. And it’s not just us. It’s restaurants and bars and any place where people gather. You have to think about a whole range of risk mitigation. Walking a dog in the park is the least amount of risk, but going to a gigantic music concert in a crowded venue is the most risky. I’d say that moviegoing, like eating out, is in the middle-risk category.

We’ve put together a task force of our members, as well as experts on health and safety and supply chains. We’ve sent guidance to theater owners. Different states will have different things in terms of what is mandated, but we are trying to think comprehensively. We’re planning for how we open up our seating so we can adhere to strict social distancing guidelines. We’re encouraging companies to lean in on reserved ticketing and to train their staff to prevent congestion in the lobbies. Members are staggering showtimes so everyone isn’t arriving at the multiplex at the same time. We are considering innovative ways to sell concessions in order to reduce human contact. And we’re making sure that employees stay home if they feel sick.

Do you think people will feel safe returning to theaters? 
I think people will appreciate the efforts that we’re taking and that they will begin to feel comfortable. Going to the cinema is not going to be the same in June or July as it was in January. It’s a different world, and that’s not unique to us. It’s something every business is grappling with.

How will you compensate for the fact that your theaters won’t be operating at full capacity? Will you devote more screens to each new release?
Theoretically that’s something we can do. We’ve been having conversations with Warner Bros. and Chris Nolan about “Tenet” and with Disney about “Mulan.” It’s not like we will have had five weeks of new releases leading up to those films, so we can devote many more auditoriums to screening them.

Disney and Warner Bros. are taking a risk by having their films be the first to play in reopened theaters. If people don’t show up, will you let them release them on demand early?
Our members are motivated to make sure that these films do as well as possible. We feel like Disney and Warner are demonstrating their belief in the theatrical model by doing this, so we’re going to go the extra mile. I think that traditional windowing will make sense for these movies. They will play a lot longer in theaters than they would have a year ago. They won’t open to the kind of numbers they would have a year ago, but there’s going to be tremendous word-of-mouth. People are going to love “Tenet” and share that on social media, but they’re also going to talk about how impressed they are with how seriously theaters are taking their responsibility to provide a safe environment. These films will also have staying power because people will be so sick of being stuck in their houses that they’re going to flood to cinemas.

Are you planning some sort of advertising campaign to encourage people to come back to theaters?
Absolutely. Just as we have a task force working on operational issues, we have a task force working on publicity issues. We’re planning to launch a campaign about how exciting it is to come out to cinemas, and we’re going to be talking to filmmakers about being a part of that. I’ve had an outpouring of interest from directors and moviemakers who are eager to talk about their excitement in bringing about a resurgence in moviegoing.