Movie theaters return, and cinema superheroes won't be the only ones with masks
Successfully rebooting local movie theaters sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic will depend on two make-or-break factors.
First, earning the public's confidence that movie theaters will be safe and clean places where people can gather -- starting today in some spots.
Second, exhibitors being able to book the blockbuster movies most people want to see on the big screen.
Add new policies, including mandatory masks, and theater officials acknowledge it won't be easy.
"I got up at 5 this morning," Chris Johnson said. "I couldn't sleep, so I came into the office at 6:30. I kept thinking about this thing."
The "thing" he keeps thinking about? How to revamp, revive and resurrect the 15 movie theaters he's responsible for as chief executive of Classic Cinemas, headquartered in Downers Grove.
Starting today as part of the state's Phase 4 plan to bring back "nonessential" businesses, Classic Cinemas will be reopening most, not all, of its theaters, including Cinema 12 in Carpentersville, the Elk Grove in Elk Grove Village, the Charlestowne 18 in St. Charles, the Fox Lake in Fox Lake, and the York in Elmhurst.
AMC, Regal, Marcus and Studio Grill theaters were contacted for this story, but none replied by Thursday afternoon. AMC announced it will reopen 450 of its theaters on July 15. According to corporate websites, Regal and Cinemark will reactivate theaters on July 10. Marcus' Elgin Cinema will open its "Elgin Parking Lot Cinema" today with other theaters opening "soon." Studio Movie Grill, in Wheaton and Chicago, will open July 17.
Serving as a precursor for these theaters' reopening, the parking lot of Hoffman Estates' Sears Centre arena became a temporary drive-in movie theater, with significant restrictions, beginning Thursday night, with a showing of the 1985 adventure comedy "The Goonies." More than 75 carloads of people watched the movie projected on a 70-foot screen.
The company behind the effort, Chicago Drive-In Theater launched earlier this month with screenings at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview. Future showings at the Sears Centre include "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" and "Trading Places" today, "Toy Story 4" and "The Blues Brothers" on Saturday, and "Beetlejuice" on Monday.
For more than three months, closed "hardtop" theaters have teetered perilously on the cusp of financial ruin because of the pandemic.
"It's just brutal," Johnson observed. He cited the bleak statistics at Classic.
Comparing 2019 figures up to June 26 with 2020 figures up to June 26, "we will be down 1.2 million people, which is an insane number," Johnson said. "Getting back to some semblance of regular business is very important."
Reopening is a big step, but Johnson won't be popping any champagne corks just yet.
"The uncertainty is definitely the hardest part," he said. "When do you start ordering food? How much should you order? How do you know if you have enough staff?"
Florida's CMX Cinemas theater chain filed for bankruptcy in April. Two weeks ago, AMC, America's largest chain, reported losses during the closures of $2.2 billion.
So, what can we expect the new pandemic-era theater experience to look like?
Johnson offered a preview of what Classic Cinemas has planned for returning patrons:
• Masks will be required for staff members and audiences.
• For ticket sales, computers will automatically place three empty seats between patrons (two empty seats between recliners), ensuring social distancing. (With your family? On a date? Don't worry. Allowances can be made for you to sit together.)
• Those computers also keep track of who sat where, so crews know which chairs to sanitize after every screening.
• Concessions will be available with touchless purchases. All refills will be issued with new containers.
• Seats in every other row will be empty to preserve social distancing. (No tape or barriers will be used in the auditoriums. "We don't want the place to look like a crime scene," Johnson said.)
But what about the lifeblood of cinema, the blockbusters?
"I do think the one picture that will bring back the mystery and intrigue is Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet' scheduled for July 31," Johnson said. Late Thursday, Warner Bros. said that movie's release is being postponed to Aug. 12.
"Then we have Disney's live-action 'Mulan' (July 24). That should help get people out. Then in September, 'A Quiet Place Part II,' in October, 'Wonder Woman 1984,' in November, James Bond in 'No Time to Die,' and in December, 'Top Gun: Maverick.'"
Despite Johnson's optimism, the road to economic recovery comes lined with marketing booby traps and potholes of uncertainty.
When the nation's three largest chains -- AMC, Cinemark and Regal -- announced masks would not be mandatory if not already required by states or municipalities, instant social media backlash forced them to reverse their policies.
As for Classic Cinemas, it possesses one more tactic to deploy in its mission to put patrons back in theater seats.
"Popcorn, fresh-popped every day," Johnson said. "A movie without popcorn isn't really a movie."