Movie Theaters Might Reopen Sooner Than Expected, but Is It Safe? (Column)

Studios and exhibitors alike are itching to get back to business, but there are big changes ahead for understandably nervous filmgoers.

Wonder Woman 1984
Clay Enos | Warner Bros.

“I’m not a scientist, but …”

That’s how an awful lot of opining is framed these days, as columnists, pundits and sources offer a quick disclaimer before proceeding to predict how the coronavirus crisis will play out.

As CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta repeats mantra-like in his daily podcast, “We’re all in this together.” Well, “together, apart” would be more like it. Here we are, sequestered in our respective homes, worrying about our collective future and trying to figure out when we can reasonably interact with one another again. Personally, quarantine has given me a lot of time to contemplate when we can return to that practice I love best: congregating in a dark room to share a laugh or a thrill as everyone stares at the same screen.

President Donald Trump is impatient for such activities to resume as well. This past week, he shared a three-phase plan for “opening up America again” that included movie theaters among the venues he wants to see back in business. And Georgia’s governor announced Monday that it will be the first state to reopen theaters, on April 27. But it’s not that easy.

Basically, what we’re dealing with here is a science fiction premise. Now, I’m not a scientist, but as a film critic, I have some experience in this more speculative arena: Take a world that’s similar in most respects to the one in which we live, and tweak a few parameters in order to speculate on how society might function. More often than not, what begins as a utopian idea takes a very dark turn. I’m desperate for movies to return as we know them, but I suspect this could go very badly.

Until we have a vaccine for COVID-19, it’s possible that no crowded public venue will be safe. The experts are scrambling to analyze, understand and combat this novel coronavirus, but one thing is clear: There’s still so much we don’t know, and the little we do changes on a daily basis.

Fine. Let’s embrace this sci-fi scenario for what it is, a hypothetical proposition, and go from there. Cinemas will reopen someday, and when they do, they’ll need fresh offerings to draw skittish audiences back to the collective moviegoing experience. Which distributors will be the first to risk releasing backlogged titles on a reduced number of screens? And more importantly, what audiences will choose to be the guinea pigs who jeopardize their health in order to see the new “Wonder Woman” movie?

Moviegoing is my life, and I miss it like crazy. If Los Angeles theaters reopened tomorrow, I’m liable to be first in line — though I’d probably show up wearing a stylin’ yellow hazmat suit, like the one Rene Russo sports in the movie “Outbreak.”

Still, the virus is so contagious that for the near term, every time we expose ourselves, we potentially endanger others as well. It’s obvious that filmgoing in the time of coronavirus is not going to be the same as it was a few short months ago, when we sat through a horror film like “The Invisible Man” without having to fear for our lives. “What you can’t see can hurt you,” teased the tagline for that movie. Turns out the pitch was more accurate than they realized.

Still, Trump includes movie theaters among the employers that can get back in business, along with sporting venues and places of worship, in Phase One of his plan. My question: What movies will be available when that happens? Warner Bros. rescheduled “Wonder Woman 1984” from June 5 to Aug. 14 to give enough theaters a chance to come back online, but that seems awfully optimistic. Such a massive studio tentpole relies on 4,000-plus screens selling to full capacity to do the kind of business needed to break even. “Wonder Woman 1984” has already been rescheduled three times. Don’t be surprised to see it move again, perhaps as far down the calendar as 2021.

Considering how hard-hit New York and California are, theaters in those states are likely to be among the last to reopen. In addition to Georgia, several states, including Florida, Ohio and Texas, are angling to start easing stay-at-home orders by late April or early May, though even less-affected states could be obliged to revise plans if infections spike in those areas.

I spent the past few days talking to people who manage movie theaters here in the U.S., and they all told me they’re closely watching the situation in China and Germany (which began allowing select businesses to resume operations Monday). The former is a megaplex-driven economy, while the latter tends to be more receptive to art-house and auteur fare — both valuable models for domestic exhibitors, depending on the kind of films they show.

After yanking their big titles just prior to the Chinese New Year (typically the biggest time of year for local blockbusters), distributors in China were understandably wary of re-dating those movies to the exact moment cinemas reopened. That’s one reason Chinese theaters revived the “Harry Potter” movies instead, hoping that a popular favorite might entice people to come back at a time when new releases were sparse. In the end, Chinese authorities swiftly forced the venues shut again, doing so without explanation.

In the U.S., there’s a lot of concern about a potential second wave of the coronavirus, so when it comes to blockbusters, no studio wants to invest in advertising and marketing, only to risk having their movies pulled from theaters again. Notice that I say “no studio.” Plenty of smaller distributors might jump at the opportunity to open their films on a limited number of screens. Consider those companies that specialize in documentaries and independent films; that’s how they operate already, relying on targeted releases. Some have already started to experiment with a profit-sharing model, where half the ticket price goes to theaters when customers buy a film at home. Imagine if some version of that practice continued, whereby audiences had the choice of watching at home or in theaters?

Under normal circumstances, these indie distributors might never stand a chance of being booked into a multiplex, relying on smaller venues in big cities (like New York and L.A.) to earn modest returns. But with AMC Cinemas and others brought to the brink of bankruptcy, these theaters have to get creative, and in the early days at least, that means booking movies they might not normally, especially since the blockbuster pipeline is on pause.

I can picture an upside-down model — the opposite of how art houses have worked for the past 60 years — where instead of opening in New York and L.A. and working their way out to the center of the country (if at all), these movies now start in places like Georgia, Minnesota, Utah and Wyoming — states where businesses are starting to reopen, and which might qualify for Phase One. And unlike the early ’60s, when auteur movies such as “Breathless” and “La Dolce Vita” launched the art-house habits we still practice today, that indie fare needn’t be limited to austere festival movies.

While nowhere near as polished as Hollywood movies, festival fare and lower-budget genre offerings ought to play better to megaplex crowds than the conventional wisdom holds. We’re also likely to see a lot of juicy repertory favorites — such as “Goonies,” “Harry Potter” and vintage “James Bond” movies — while studios play it safe and wait till things go back to “normal” before releasing Marvel’s “Black Widow” or Sony’s delayed Bond tentpole “No Time to Die.”

But just how normal is the new normal going to be?

When Trump laid out his three-phase plan, he stipulated (without defining) a series of “physical distancing protocols.” What does that mean for movie theaters, which historically offer a kind of communal experience? Turns out, it’s easier than you might think. Masks and temperature checks may well be mandatory in many cinemas, at least during the early phases. Moviegoers might be more wary about buying concessions (an important part of most theaters’ profit model), but these transactions can be streamlined in much the same way grocery stores and coffee shops have, by minimizing human interaction in the purchasing process.

As for seating, picture some version of a checkerboard pattern — where every other seat is left empty and no one sits directly in front of or behind you. That would probably work in theaters with stadium seating, but if that’s not enough space, then expand the coughing radius to two empty seats for every one sold (perhaps the difference between “strict” and “moderate” distancing). For cinemas that already offer reserved seating, that’s a pretty easy policy to implement, if not to enforce. Theaters can easily block out every other seat, or two out of every three seats. That means couples and families can’t sit together, or else they throw off the entire pattern and jeopardize the row in front of them — which certainly puts a pinch on date night, although Americans have been making tough decisions about how to handle such interactions.

Personally, I’m less concerned about social distancing. (I do that already in cinemas, looking for a seat that’s comfortably spaced from other patrons, many of whom like to whisper and play on their phones during the movie.) What worries me is the notion that the virus can live on surfaces for a couple days. What good does it do to spread out if you’re sitting in the same seat that was just occupied by someone infected with COVID-19?

Cinemas have a potential solution for this as well: Expect theaters to scale back the number of showtimes per day, or to space them out a bit more, giving staff a chance to “deep clean” the seats between shows. This will likely amount to manually wiping down seats with sanitizer, the way airlines now do between flights.

Keep in mind, it’s not just the health and safety of patrons that matter, but also those of the employees who operate the cinemas. The projectionist is naturally isolated, up there in the booth, but it’s important that those interacting with patrons be well protected. Moviegoers are free to decide for themselves whether they feel safe returning to cinemas (and many won’t until scientists know more about the virus). But I refuse to believe the claims that this pandemic has killed the appetite for seeing movies — and not just blockbusters and tentpoles — on the big screen. If anything, a couple months of being cooped up at home has amplified my desire for the kind of escapism I can only find in a darkened movie theater. And you don’t have to be a scientist to know that I’m not alone in that.