Inside COVID-Safe Movie Theaters: Sanitization Foggers, Plexiglass and New Popcorn Rules

Imagine a magical weapon straight out of science fiction: a machine of gratifying, cartoonish proportions that unleashes a magic potion eradicating the scourge of the past and bringing families safely together.

Except it’s not a Marvel prop, it’s an electrostatic disinfectant sprayer — a goofy but crucial piece of protective equipment that will become a staple for moviegoers in a post-pandemic world.

That spray gun, which will hose down seats, guardrails and door handles in between every movie showing across the globe, is part of one of several new protocols Variety observed on a recent cineplex tour in California, as the state slowly opens locations to customers after a yearlong quarantine shutdown.

“We’re gearing up for this moment, for the magic moment for people to come back inside and enjoy naturally what is a communal experience, although now it’s a little more distanced,” said Andrew Gualtieri, district manager of the SoCal-based Regency Theatres.

The chain’s Van Nuys location, miles from the heart of Los Angeles, has been operational as a drive-in theater since August. Gualtieri spoke of emotional calls and emails from the community asking when their indoor facility would open again.

Targeting a March 31 reopen, Gualtieri walked us through the reimagined space, built around the CinemaSafe protocols issued by the National Association of Theatre Owners.

Some new restrictions will break with long-held traditions around moviegoing, he said. The concession stand will be protected by plexiglass with credit card swipe devices moved to the customer side, eliminating unnecessary touch points.

“As soon as you get that popcorn, you want to jump right in, but you’ve got to wait until you sit down to start enjoying those snacks,” Gualtieri said. Condiments will be pre-packed and contained (no self-serve butter for your popcorn, which is, frankly, better for you).

Restroom facilities have also been pared down to prevent overcrowding. The majority of ticketing will be app based, and use a “seat buffering” system to block out theater seats on either side of a given party. Ushers and visual aids will instruct guests to leave the theater row by row, with dedicated entrance and exit doors.

Get a first-hand look at the new normal in moviegoing in our video above.