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Now showing: Cinemas reopen in Yellowknife and Hay River, N.W.T.

Going to cinema will feel a little different with COVID-19 precautions in place, but owners hope that won’t stop the movie magic.

Going to the movies will feel a little different with COVID-19 precautions

The Capitol Theatre in Yellowknife during its COVID-19-related hiatus. The cinema reopened to the public yesterday. (Donna Lee/CBC)

For those who've missed the ritual of big-screen movie viewing, the wait is finally over: cinemas in the N.W.T. are reopening for business.

That doesn't mean the pandemic hasn't left its mark on the movie business. Going to the cinema will feel different with precautions in place to keep COVID-19 at bay.

Chris Wood, manager at Yellowknife's Capitol Theatre, gave CBC a tour of his facility in downtown Yellowknife, which reopened Friday.

"We've made a lot of changes to adapt to the pandemic," he explained. "The lobby isn't that big, so we can't have our traditional lineups."

The lobby is now stamped with decals six feet apart, to mark an appropriate physical distance. Your ticket vendor will now be gloved and masked, behind a plastic shield. And concessions are now handled "cafeteria-style," with a staff member responsible for payment, drinks, popcorn respectively, to keep people moving.

Wood says the theatre had to make a lot of changes to adapt, but is prepared to welcome audiences safely. (Submitted by Chris Wood)

That's all before you get into the theatre, which will feel a lot emptier than before.

Wood said the cinema was approved for 50 per cent capacity. But since two people can claim an entire row if they're seated individually, he's expecting it to be closer to quarter capacity most of the time.

The Capitol Cinema isn't the only cinema to reopen — the Riverview Cineplex in Hay River, N.W.T. announced its reopening plan on Facebook Tuesday.

Like the Capitol Cinema, patrons will be asked to pay close attention to signage, limit their use of the bathrooms, and avoid paying with cash. They've also asked movie watchers to keep a mask on until they're seated.

But the two northern theatres are definitely in a minority.

"There's not a lot of theatres that have reopened yet," he said. "It's been stressful — there's been a lot of anxiety."

Movie production hiatus hits pause on reopening plan

Cinemas around the world have been slow to reopen since many were forced to close amid concerns about large, indoor gatherings.

But the pandemic has also delayed studio production schedules and limited the number of cinematic releases.

Wood said he worked with health authorities and the Workers' Safety and Compensation Commission to draft a reopening plan more than a month ago. But there were no movies to reopen with.

"A lot of people … suggested that we play retro films," he said. But he didn't want to charge full price, and with reduced capacity, it just wasn't cost effective.

When he heard studios would release some movies early in Canada, Wood said, "the decision was kind of made for us."

They might not be the summer blockbusters you were expecting but Yellowknife's cinema will be able to play two new films for audiences — Russell Crowe road rage thriller Unhinged, and The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run.

Wood also decided to screen a retro film, after all — Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

"I know a number of people that had never seen it, and I'm betting that anyone under 40 had never seen it on the big screen," he said.

Posters outside the Capitol Theatre in May 2019. A dearth of new releases meant Yellowknife's cinema stayed closed even after its reopening plan was finalized. (John Last/CBC)

If you'd rather wait for the next round of new releases, you could be waiting for a while.

Wood says he'll be tracking how full each screening is to make sure any patrons that are turned away still have a chance to see the film — even if it means screening it for longer.

And even though studios are giving Canadians early access to some blockbusters, like Christopher Nolan's highly-anticipated Tenet, the studio production schedule is hardly back to normal.

"We're kind of at the mercy of what the studios are going to release at this point," Wood said.

On the plus side, Wood said despite the "devastating" financial impact of the months-long closure, he's been able to hire back most of his staff.

He's hoping patrons will be "patient" as they figure out the new system.

"This is all new for us," he said, "and I know it's going to be new for them."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story named Capitol Theatre's manager as Chris Woods. In fact, he is named Chris Wood.
    Aug 15, 2020 11:24 AM CT

Written by John Last, based on an interview by Lawrence Nayally

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