Hamilton's movie theatres will reopen after 4 months, but what will they show?

The inside of the Playhouse Cinema invokes the odd feeling of traveling back to five months ago, when few people wore masks and not many were talking about COVID-19.

Smaller Hamilton-area theatres are opening Friday, while Cineplex is still reviewing the Stage 3 rules

Jacob Tutt, manager of the Playhouse in Hamilton's central lower city, says he thinks people are waiting to go to the movies again. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The inside of the Playhouse Cinema invokes the odd feeling of being suspended in time five months ago, when few people wore masks and not many were talking about COVID-19.

The poster on the lobby wall is still for Disappearance at Clifton Hill, which last showed on March 9. The newsletter bin last held guides from when snow was on the ground. No one has sat in these seats since March 15, when a screening of 1917 was the last movie anyone saw here before the pandemic hit.

Now the Playhouse, along with cinemas like Westdale Theatre and Cine Starz in Burlington, will open its doors on Friday, when Hamilton finally hits Stage 3 of reopening after the pandemic-era lockdown. Cineplex says it's still reviewing the province's Stage 3 criteria, which allows no more than 50 people in the building at once, to see what it means for reopening.

Movie going will be different experience this weekend. Some seats will be blocked off with yellow tape. Floor decals will guide people to stay six feet apart. Snack bars will be covered with plexiglass. Hamilton has a mandatory indoor mask bylaw now, although the city says it doesn't apply when people are having food or drink. So as long as people are eating popcorn in their seats, they can pull down their masks.

Playhouse manager Jacob Tutt isn't worried. Audiences, who've been streaming films for months, will come back.

"People can't wait to get back," he said. "There's a lot of positivity around cinemas reopening."

"There's something more to it when you're in a theatre. You watch the film in a different way."

Bruce Gurberg, who owns Cine Starz theatres in Ontario and Quebec, agrees that audiences will be there when the doors reopen Friday, even with mandatory indoor mask bylaws. 

"I believe people love going to the movies," he said.

Under Ontario's Stage 3 rules, theatres are limited to 50 people, even when there are multiple screens. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

"You get great popcorn, great ambience, and a great picture, and you can't get that at home."

The pandemic has been particularly rough for movie theatres, who have found some workarounds to keep in touch with their audiences, but none that make much money.

The Playhouse has offered movies online, and had weekly "popcorn pickups" where snacks are served by masked employees at the front door. But Tutt says that's primarily been to keep in touch with the loyal customer base. 

"We don't want to lose contact with the audience," he said. "You want them to know you're still alive and kicking."

The Westdale has offered movies through an online streaming service too, although it's brought in "about five per cent" of what the theatre brings in when it's open, says manager Dan Fournier. It's also held film clubs and streamed live shows with local musicians, although for the viewer, those events are free. 

The pandemic, Fournier says, has really called on the theatre to flex its not-for-profit mandate — one where it's about community outreach, not making money.

Hamilton has an indoor mask bylaw for public places, but it doesn't apply when people are eating and drinking. Theatres, including the Playhouse, have installed plexiglass over their snack counters. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"There were no crazy ideas that weren't thought about," Fournier said. "Our core customers have loved it because we didn't roll up the sidewalk and walk away."

For the Westdale and the Playhouse, single-screen theatres that focus on art house and repertory titles, narrow profit margins became even narrower. Both had been open for about a year when the pandemic hit.

Tutt says it's been a pinch to the pocketbook, but not a fatal one. The Tutt family also owns two theatres in Kitchener-Waterloo, and the Hamilton venture exceeded financial expectations in the first year. That gave it some cushion to weather the pandemic.

The Westdale has survived through deferring some payments, Fournier says, and also reaching out to donors. 

"Fortunately for us," he said, "we've had some fantastic supporters."

Cine Starz has maintained, Gurberg says, although after a couple of weeks off, he was "stir crazy."

"That's the word that comes to my head first," he said. "It's been terrible."

Theatres are reaching for older-but-relevant titles in light of the lack of new movies. The Playhouse is showing Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. (Courtesy of TIFF)

The Playhouse has 227 seats maximum, although usually doesn't fill those during garden-variety screenings. Fifty seats, Tutt says, is an 82-per cent reduction in capacity, but enough for screenings to be financially viable. The Westdale has 375 seats.

Cine Starz Burlington has a handful of screens. Provincial rules, Gurberg says, dictate that only 50 people are allowed not just per screen, but in the entire facility. 

That presents a bigger problem for Cineplex, which has large Silver City complexes in Ancaster, Burlington and Hamilton Mountain. Cineplex is having a rough time in general, recently cutting 120 jobs and filing a lawsuit against U.K.-based Cineworld over a failed takeover bid

The company is "still reviewing what's being proposed by the province," said spokesperson Katie Rankin in an email. 

"While we are certainly excited for the day our operations can resume, our top priority has always been the health and safety of our employees and guests and ensuring that their time with us is safe, comfortable and welcoming."

Lack of new movies

Audiences may notice a dearth of new movies on the market. For the first time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has ruled that films don't need a theatrical release to be nominated for Oscars. 

Spring titles have been pushed back to the fall, and even then, studios are reluctant to release movies that won't get a full run, Gurberg says.

Cineplex recently cut 120 jobs, even amid plans to reopen. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

"We're going back to older ones until they release the newer ones," he said. When Cine Starz Burlington opens Friday, it will show older 2020 titles The Invisible Man, Doolittle, Trolls World Tour and The Trip to Greece, as well as Zootopia (2016), The Greatest Showman (2017) and The Avengers

The Playhouse's first movie back will be Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), a nod to the swell of George Floyd-inspired Black Lives Matter protests that have happened since May. It will also show John Lewis: Good Trouble, a documentary about the civil rights leader who died on July 17.

Westdale movie goers will also notice more older titles on the screen. Movie supplies "will be the next big challenge," Fournier said. 

"But I'm just happy that we're going to be opening."



Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She often tweets about Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca