Aug 22, 2020 - Health

Theaters pitch consumers to return with new safety standards

Illustration of a bag of popcorn wearing a medical mask
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Executives from the biggest movie chains in the America came together on Friday to unveil a joint safety plan for people looking to visit movie theaters as they begin to reopen this week.

Why it matters: Theaters are desperate to bring consumers back after spending the past five months stuck mostly closed or at limited capacity.

The big picture: The domestic box office brought in a paltry $1.8 billion this year, compared to $11.3 billion this time last year.

  • Many theaters have had to postpone reopening for months as the virus intensified and as studios yanked their blockbusters from debuting.
  • Analysts predict that not all theater chains will survive the pandemic.

Driving the news: Executives from AMC, Regal, Cinemark, Imax and Marcus worked collaboratively for the first time ever on a video call to walk reporters and industry executives through what they are calling the "CinemaSafe protocols," a set of health and safety standards that will be universally applied to all movie theaters owned by top chains.

  • The CinemaSafe campaign requires that all movie theaters make masks mandatory, enforce social distancing, reduce capacity to around 40%-50%, update air filtration systems, sell tickets electronically and modify concessions.
  • It also makes it mandatory that theaters follow general health and safety protocols, like employee trainings, making hand sanitizer available and more.

By the numbers: According to figures from the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), more than 300 companies, comprising over 2,600 locations and more than 30,000 screens across the U.S. have signed on to the protocols.

  • Participating theaters can display a new "CinemaSafe" badge, along with protocols on their websites, and soon, at their theater locations.

Be smart: While different chains have been enforcing some of these protocols individually, executives said that research indicated consumers were looking for a uniform, industrywide approach to tackling theater safety.

  • Executives and experts on the call tried to frame theater attendance as no different than tackling any other risk during the pandemic.
  • "The duration of movie length can be the same as time in a restaurant or on an airplane," said Joyce Sanchez, an infectious disease specialist.
  • "Some people go to gym. Some go church ... But some people really need to go to the movies," said Megan Colligan, president of Imax Entertainment.

Corporate leadership argued that theaters are a safer environment than most people realize, because people are seated in one spot without contact for most of the time.

  • "We all need to remember that in the cinemas, everyone sits in one place. There's almost no movement during movie time. Everyone's faces are facing the same direction and there's almost no talking," said Mooky Greidinger, CEO of Cineworld, the second-largest global movie theater chain and home to Regal cinemas.

Worldwide, theater executives say openings have gone well, bringing hope to exhibitors in the U.S.

  • "What we've seen in the UK and Central Europe is very encouraging," said Greidinger, who added that in at least two territories in Europe, where allowed, theaters are already operating at 75% capacity.

What's next: A slew of new movies is expect to debut in the U.S. this week and around the Labor Day holiday, which theater chains hope will bring eager consumers back.

  • The most highly anticipated debut will be Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” which comes to theaters in the U.S. over Labor Day after international showings.
  • "We're seeing that as we start to debut new content, audiences all over the world are responsive to it," said Mark Zoradi, CEO of Cinemark Holdings.

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