Lights, camera, action? How movie theatres, studios are struggling to reopen post-COVID

Cineplex is planning to reopen its theatres after a three-month shutdown, along with fellow Canadian chain Landmark Cinemas. But as audiences ponder the risk, it's uncertain whether new movie releases will come out as scheduled.

Cineplex, Landmark Cinemas slated to partly reopen in Canada on June 26

Both Cineplex and Landmark Cinemas plan to reopen select theatres in British Columbia and Alberta on June 26, after being forced to close for more than three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

After more than three months of empty seats and silent popcorn machines, movie theatres — which sustained a dramatic hit when the Canadian economy shut down due to COVID-19 — are getting ready for their closeup. 

Both Cineplex and Landmark Cinemas, Canada's two largest movie theatre chains, plan to partly reopen in British Columbia and Alberta on June 26, after being closed since mid-March. Their reopening comes alongside a number of independent theatres in those provinces, with locations to the east hoping to return to business in early to mid-July.

But those reopenings come with a big catch, as theatres weren't the only part of the movie industry forced to alter their plans once the global pandemic struck earlier this year. With the summer blockbuster season approaching and audiences still largely stuck at home, movie studios started pushing their titles back — whether by weeks, months or even into next year. 

That's left a lot of speculation surrounding what audiences will actually see on the marquee once theatre doors actually open again.

"If we've seen anything over this pandemic, it's that nothing is nailed down," said Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations Co. in Los Angeles. "Everything really is TBD, depending on what happens week to week."

Those changes have hardly slowed down, either. Movie studios Warner Bros., Sony Pictures and Universal had Wonder Woman 1984, Morbius and F9, respectively, slated to kick off the 2020 summer blockbuster season. Now, Wonder Woman is set to premiere in October, while Morbius and F9 have moved all the way back to March and April of 2021.

Many others — James Bond instalment No Time to Die, Pixar's Soul, the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights and more — received the same treatment. Studios, Bock said, are grappling with the potential reward of being one of the few big productions actually available in theatres versus the risk of audiences not wanting to visit a theatre over health concerns.

"It's hard to say what the consumers are going to do," Bock said. "And it really is up to ticket buyers whether this is going to work or not."

Uncertain schedules

Whether it works out or not, Bock said, will most likely be decided in the first few weeks after theatres reopen. That's when movie-goers will see what's on offer and how well theatres are adapting.

The early reopenings in Western Canada — Landmark says it hopes to open theatres in Manitoba and Saskatchewan by July 3 or at the latest — come before any major cinematic releases. As it stands, the earliest big-picture premiere is the Russell Crowe thriller Unhinged for July, followed by A24's Saint Maud and The Broken Hearts Gallery starring Selena Gomez.

That leaves a gap for theatres to fill. Sarah Van Lange, executive director of communications for Cineplex, said it will likely show previously released titles for the first few weeks, though decisions are still being made about what those will be. 

An empty Landmark theatre, which CEO Bill Walker says will soon reopen. (Kiriako Iatridis/Landmark Cinemas)

Bill Walker, CEO of Landmark, said its theatres will show some films that had their run cut short — such as Universal's Trolls, which went straight to video on demand after theatres closed — and older titles like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Forrest Gump, Anchorman and The Empire Strikes Back

Tickets for those "legacy" titles will be offered at discounted prices at both theatre chains and will occupy the marquee until newer movies begin to be released — that is, if they hold on to their current release dates.

"I think the big movie that everyone kind of pinned on the calendar is Tenet," Walker said. "That's really the first big-budget major release that we have confidence is going to stay in the release schedule."

The movie has positioned itself as a litmus test for the industry. While Walker sees it likely holding onto its July 31 release date — with Mulan, scheduled for July 24, likely being pushed further back, he believes — Bock said he is less certain. 

Even as virtually every other movie was delayed, Christopher Nolan's Tenet held on to its original July 17 premiere throughout the pandemic. Then in mid-June, Tenet was moved to July 31 and replaced with a 10th-anniversary re-release of Nolan's Inception.

"That proved to me that they're so unsure, they're going to test another Christopher Nolan film first just to see what happened, in case they want to pull Tenet," Bock said.

"It's all a setup. That speaks to it all being 'wait and see.'"

Precautionary measures

What they are waiting to see, Bock and Walker said, is whether audiences will trust movie theatres to protect them. Cineplex and Landmark both say they are taking precautionary steps, such as limiting theatre capacities, having guests pre-book seats that are separated from others and staggering movie times so their lobbies don't become crowded. 

Both theatre chains will provide masks and other personal protective equipment for their staff, but neither is requiring it of guests. Instead, people are encouraged to wear whatever they feel most comfortable with. 

Bock said he thinks that's a mistake, speculating that many movie-goers may decide the risk is not worth it. A similar debate played out in the United States this week, when AMC Theatres reversed its decision to make mask-wearing optional after significant backlash.

Whether or not people feel safe and come into theatres in early July will determine the movie schedule for the rest of the summer. But both Walker and Bock said movie-goers can only be confident that films will debut after studios include actual release dates in trailers and run larger marketing campaigns. 

That uncertainty exists throughout the industry. Tom Alexander is head of theatrical releases for Mongrel Media, which is distributing Lionsgate's new horror Antebellum in Canada. The film was originally supposed to come out in April but was rescheduled to August because of the coronavirus outbreak.

He said while he's confident in the new release date, it's still difficult to be certain because of the pandemic.

"It's as locked as anything is right now," Alexander said. "But right now, it's hard to say what something being locked is."


Jackson Weaver is a senior writer for CBC Entertainment News. You can reach him at jackson.weaver@cbc.ca, or follow him on Twitter at @jacksonwweaver


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