Canadian cinemas mull safe returns along uncertain COVID-19 timeline
Restricted seating, staggered showtimes among measures planned
When COVID-19 restrictions eventually become relaxed enough for Canadian cinemas to reopen their doors, it still may not look like a normal trip to the movies.
Cineplex, the country's largest cinema chain, said it will take several steps to help make movie-going safe for audience members and staff alike.
The Toronto-based company, which owns 165 theatres across Canada, said it will limit seating in auditoriums to allow for physical distancing, along with staggering its showtimes and adjusting operating hours "to reflect market-specific attendance and visitation levels."
That's on top of "enhanced cleaning protocols and practices" and "adapting our concession and food service procedures," said Cineplex spokesperson Sarah Van Lange in an emailed statement Friday.
Phased opening across country looking likely: Cineplex
Exactly when the company's digital projectors will get rebooted is unclear.
Cineplex said it will take its cues from provinces charting individual paths to gradual economic revival.
Saskatchewan was the first province out of the gate with its reopening plan, with movie theatres listed under the fourth of five phases for reopening varied businesses. No dates were attached to phases three through five of the Saskatchewan plan.
"We will reopen our venues when [government and public health authorities] tell us it is safe to do so," Van Lange said.
"It is looking more and more like our reopening strategy will follow the same vein as that of our temporary closures, with some provinces and markets opening before others in very much a measured and phased approach."
Changing habits in age of COVID-19
Van Lange said Cineplex expects a lot of demand for "out-of-home" entertainment when the COVID-19 crisis subsides.
Tom Hutchinson, the president of Magic Lantern Theatres, which owns nine cinemas in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario, said the future landscape for theatres is more uncertain.
"Is there a reasonable chance the COVID-19 experience will change our habits in all sorts of ways? I think the answer to that question is yes," Hutchinson said. "I don't think we have any idea what those ways are unless we get into a TARDIS and go 50 years or so into the future and look back."
Hollywood studios left without brick-and-mortar venues in which to release movies like Trolls World Tour have instead debuted them on streaming platforms.
Trolls reportedly posted an impressive financial debut over its digital-only opening weekend, sparking industry fears that COVID-19 could hasten a shift toward at-home viewing of first-run films.
"If customers are waiting for video, then they're going to stay away from the first-run theatres, partially because of COVID-19, partially because they're out of the habit and their needs are being met at home," Hutchinson said.
'A great big question mark'
Magic Lantern recently opened a new four-screen theatre in North Battleford, Sask.
But because only a limited number of upcoming summer releases — including the Christopher Nolan tentpole Tenet — remain set for theatre openings in the near term, Hutchinson said Magic Lantern might only reopen its older, single-screen theatre in North Battleford to screen the film (provided it's allowed).
"It's a great big question mark," Hutchinson said. "We're considering leaving the fourplex closed until the mid-fall."
Hutchinson added that, "at this point, the extra costs called for by COVID-19 preclude opening [theatres] at all."
One sacred moviegoing ritual remains undisturbed, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, however.
Both Cineplex and Magic Lantern's Roxy Cinema in Saskatoon are offering home delivery of theatre-made popcorn.
"We're trying to pay the light bill," Hutchinson joked.