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Movie Theaters Test the Waters Ahead of ‘Tenet’ Release

National cinema chains including Cinemark and NCG are re-opening their doors with tiered strategies this month.
Movie Theater Overhead
By  · Published on June 7th, 2020

It’s too ironic that Jaws is one of the first titles available to moviegoers as theaters re-open. With few new releases to present on the big screen, and none of them major Hollywood productions, independent cinemas and smaller chains in Georgia and other states have resorted to programming favorites of the past, including Steven Spielberg‘s classic horror blockbuster. This is the case for interior screenings as well as temporary parking-lot-based drive-in alternatives. While most theater owners are cautiously adapting with new procedures out of continued concern for the COVID-19 pandemic, nobody really knows if testing the waters is safe at all when the virus is still out there posing a threat to all Americans.

How the Theaters are Re-Opening

Movie theaters were allowed to re-open in many states last month, but major chains like AMC and Regal decided to hold out for new Hollywood releases. Smaller chains and independent businesses trod lightly and many have opted for the drive-in option to maintain social distancing practices. Plus the makeshift drive-in experience offers something novel that attracts curiosity. But as we approach the still-standing release date of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, theater owners are having to figure out a game plan to get butts in seats come July 17th. Cinemas could just re-open their doors that week and see what happens, but instead, the common strategy appears to be about slowly phased operations in order to warm up and prepare.

Cinemark, which is the third-largest cinema chain after AMC and Regal, announced a four-phase plan to get ready for what’s on the horizon. They’ll be starting with five theaters in the Dallas-Fort Worth area re-opening on June 19th. The following weekend, Cinemark will re-open one-third of their locations, mostly in metro areas. The weekend after that (which happens to be July 4th weekend), another third will re-open. Finally, on July 10th, all 344 Cinemark theaters will be running at some capacity. The company expects allowance for at least fifty-percent seating by the time that Tenet is released, and that’s enough for them to be profitable. Cinemark CEO Mark Zoradi also claims that if Tenet does wind up delayed, “that will not be a devastating change.”

Another even smaller national theater chain, NCG Cinemas, is opening a brand new location just outside Atlanta on June 4th. This is the only one of their locations opening its doors for the time being, but the company’s website does have general information about its “phased operating procedures” for its “re-opening” in a graphically branded announcement page. So far, NCG has only revealed “Phase 1, which is called the “strict social distancing” phase. They’ll be operating at thirty-percent seating capacity and have well-laid-out rules and practices. Each location will apparently have enough employees to handle the opening and closing of doors as well as heavily cleaning self-serve drink dispensers and other surfaces after every use.

As with most businesses that are open during these times, the efforts for little contact on the part of the staff is the best they can do. NCG won’t be ripping tickets and are encouraging cashless transactions through apps. Some areas (like arcades and party rooms) and self-service items (like butter dispensers, water fountains, and hearing devices) will be off-limits and/or unavailable for a while to avoid there being more things for patrons to touch. Employees will be wearing masks as well as constantly replaced gloves and may be required to have temperature readings and will make statements avowing their good health ahead of shifts and concession stand employees will stand behind plexiglass guards. They’re really covering all their bases.

That’s all they can do, though, while the patrons are trusted to follow protocols and do their part in this all. NCG won’t be refusing cash nor will they be requiring masks to be worn by customers or taking temperatures (Cinemark has also now confirmed they won’t be requiring masks on customers). And in all spaces, including theaters, patrons are expected to maintain distance, but that’s difficult to manage even with assigned seating in auditoriums (I can’t recall if the NCG theaters I’ve been to have assigned seating but their new location does). As we’ve seen in many places across the country so far, there are plenty of people who refuse, ignore, or accidentally fail to abide by the safest of actions and best of manners right now. So, there’s still an element of this being an enter at your own risk situation.

What the Theaters Are Showing

When the NCG Brookhaven opens on June 4th, moviegoers can choose from the following selections: Wonder Woman, Sonic the Hedgehog, Jumanji: The Next Level, and I Still Believe. Most are late 2019 and early 2020 releases, plus a three-year-old DC superhero movie. Joining them on June 5th, on its scheduled theatrical release date, is the music-based reincarnation drama Mighty Oak. While there have been other new films avoiding a strictly straight-to-VOD release by also playing conventional and makeshift drive-ins — some cinemas that are already open are currently showing The High Note and Trolls World Tour — but Paramount’s Mighty Oak is the rare if not the first true theatrical exclusive from a studio.

Many theaters that have re-opened in the US (last month, Variety reported the number as being 348, including 169 drive-ins) and others that plan to re-open soon have been stuck playing primarily older titles. Such blockbuster favorites as Jaws, Back to the FutureJurassic ParkE.T.: the Extra-TerrestrialThe Goonies, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Twister — essentially Spielberg movies for the most part, though there are others beyond his productions that I haven’t seen as frequently. Outside of spectacles, which are especially easy to follow in the temp drive-in situations, other kinds of movies that appear to be popular include musicals and cult classics such as The Princess Bride and Groundhog Day.

There is a cinema very close to me that recently re-opened and is doing both auditorium and parking-lot-drive-in shows presenting a wide variety including, in addition to some of the aforementioned selections and a couple of day-and-date new releases, Psycho, Footloose, Girls Trip, Minions, Shazam!, Burn After Reading, Yesterday, Notting Hill, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Kung Fu Panda, Sing, Pitch Perfect, Mean Girls, The Big Lebowski, Space Jam, Batman, Dirty Dancing, Rear Window (for some reason the 1998 TV movie version is the one listed, likely erroneously), and Saving Private Ryan (more Spielberg!).

What I’m not seeing are the big anniversary titles that Fathom Events had scheduled for this summer, namely The Shining, Clueless, Gladiator, Braveheart, and Apollo 13, (but Psycho, which they’ve set for a 60th-anniversary celebration this fall, is available) nor any of their planned TCM-branded classics, including The Blues Brothers, Annie, Airplane!, King Kong, A League of Their Own, and Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Or their regular Studio Ghibli Fest titles (which are now mostly at last streaming via HBO MAX anyway). Presumably, Fathom will figure out a way to reschedule their postponed (as they’re listed as) movie events once they’re back in operation again. However, they’re stacking up.

What you also won’t find are any Disney or Fox titles (the latter now held by Disney), because the Mouse House has generally decided not to allow for catalog bookings at any time. I’d love to see them occasionally re-release their movies as they used to in the past, though, and they could do so by locking the titles out of Disney+ during that period. The thing that I keep wondering is whether this time of old movies being the primary content at theaters could be a sign of the future. If theaters experience hardships due to COVID-19 and/or Hollywood’s interest in more day-and-date releases a la Trolls World Tour, why not mix up big new releases with more regular vintage picks? It works for Fathom, which sells out many of their retro-film screenings.

It’s difficult to tell how long the current need for old films will last. Cinemark is expected to start off with older titles when it begins its phased re-opening later this month, but then starting in July we’ll be seeing more and more new releases coming out. July 1st, there’s the Russell Crowe thriller Unhinged from Solstice Studios, and the next day, there’s the Afghanistan War drama The Outpost from Screen Media. Warner Bros. has the highly anticipated Tenet on July 17th, and Disney is expecting to finally drop their postponed remake Mulan on July 24th. Still set for August, there’s Wonder Woman 1984, Antebellum, Bill & Ted Face the Music, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, and The New Mutants. And we’ll be in full force again.

How the Theaters Will Woo Us Back

Outside of their efforts to make moviegoing safe despite the ongoing pandemic concerns, theaters don’t have a lot to offer the general public as a necessary or even desirable place to spend their time and money. Everyone has been stuck at home, though, and the promise of something beyond what’s available to watch on the various streaming services could be appealing once the big new movies are out. For the time being, they can only hope there are enough fans out there who just want to get out of the house that old movies are good enough. To make it a better value for those who make the trip out, a lot of these independents and chains are selling tickets at reduced prices.

Of course, the discounts will only last a short time. While NCG is advertising five-dollar tickets and Cinemark has set five-dollar adult and three-dollar child tickets for its first month back in operation, with no upcharges for large-format shows, the latter chain has already admitted that new movies will be full price again. Specifically, Cinemark names Tenet‘s opening as the time when tickets will be back to their normal pre-shutdown rate. That’s not surprising as Warner Bros. traditionally ordered theaters to cease discount offerings whenever a Harry Potter movie came out. Will that be a bad idea in these circumstances? Perhaps the studios and the theaters need to unite to make the return to moviegoing as easy and tempting as possible.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.