Movie theaters tackling a new role: psychologist

How to remain a refuge amid pandemic protocols?

  • Classic Cinemas CEO Chris Johnson, here at the company's Cinema 12 Theatre in Carpentersville, has to strike a balance in protecting customers amid the pandemic while not making "all the health stuff too obvious," he said. "Because if it feels like they're checking in for a flight, they aren't going to come. But you have to let them know somehow. So it's really hard."

    Classic Cinemas CEO Chris Johnson, here at the company's Cinema 12 Theatre in Carpentersville, has to strike a balance in protecting customers amid the pandemic while not making "all the health stuff too obvious," he said. "Because if it feels like they're checking in for a flight, they aren't going to come. But you have to let them know somehow. So it's really hard." Brian Hill/Daily Herald file photo

 
 
Updated 6/22/2020 6:18 PM

As he gets ready to open his movie theaters across Illinois and Wisconsin, Chris Johnson faces a dilemma.

Johnson is eager to emphasize all the measures he and his staff are taking to protect patrons from COVID-19. But he's also wary of overdoing medical talk and scaring off potential customers.

 

"You don't want to make all the health stuff too obvious," said Johnson, chief executive of Downers Grove-based Classic Cinemas, which operates 120 screens at 15 theaters, including 10 in the suburbs. "Because if it feels like they're checking in for a flight, they aren't going to come. But you have to let them know somehow. So it's really hard."

Movie theaters are encountering a slew of challenges as they lurch toward reopening after a three-month shutdown, including well-documented obstacles such as a lack of new movies and capacity legally capped as low as 25%.

But those who run theaters say an even bigger challenge is emerging: Reading, and relieving, the worries of a fragile customer base.

All businesses, of course, must figure out how to put customers at ease during the pandemic. But movie theaters face a distinct strain of the problem. More than airlines, retail and even restaurants, movie theaters thrive on a sense of refuge, peddling the joy of leaving reality at the door to plunge into imaginary new worlds. That's tough to do when employees are handing out masks, enforcing seat distances and scanning for pallid complexions.

A business that normally thrives on selling high-margin snacks to enthusiastic audiences is now thrust into the role of social psychologist. Movie-theater managers in the summer of 2020 must throw open their doors without appearing to let just anyone in; they need to reassure customers it's safe to share a dark room with dozens of strangers but not freak them out with clinicalities.

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Many theaters are planning to reopen this summer, with smaller movies such as the action-thriller "Unhinged," the Sundance hit "Palm Springs" and the romantic comedy "The Broken Hearts Gallery" all coming out in the first weeks of July.

AMC, the country's largest chain, said two weeks ago that it will open nearly all theaters next month to stem losses that climbed to $2.2 billion in the most recent quarter.

Theaters that don't open this summer will need to restart their business eventually -- this fall, studios are planning to release such major titles as the new James Bond movie "No Time to Die," the Marvel franchise film "Black Widow" and an expensive reboot of the science-fiction epic "Dune."

That prospect has sent Omaha-based businessman William Barstow, whose Main Street Theatres operates eight locations and 48 screens in Nebraska and Iowa, into uncharted waters. Barstow has spent 30 years studying what makes people come to the movies, but none of them, he says, has been like the last three months, in which he has pored over professional polls and conducted informal ones of his own to understand the anxieties he needs to address.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

One conclusion: Leaning in to safety messaging is a surefire way to turn off customers.

"If you're leading off the pitch with, 'It's so clean you're not going to get sick,' then you've already lost the argument," said Barstow, whose company is about to open a new Omaha location. Instead of talking about disinfectant and distancing, he says, he believes it more effective to roll out traditional marketing that slips in the requisite information -- an image of a shiny lobby with an employee in the background who just happens to be wearing a mask, for instance.

"You let people know you're taking care of them, but very subtly," he said.

The three largest chains -- AMC, Regal and Cinemark -- did not comment for this story. The companies control about half of the country's 40,000 movie screens; the remaining 50% are either regional chains or family-run businesses.

Johnson, of Classic Cinemas, agreed that a big part of the mission is to avoid reminding people of outside dangers -- avoiding, for example, the distance markings and taped-off areas that have become common in grocery stores and other retail outlets. "The idea is not to make it look like a crime scene," he said.

Others say a key lies in reshaping employee-customer interactions in ways for the current moment. "You have to train staff how to reassure customers with their eyes, because no one will be able to see their mouths," said Barstow, who is mandating employees wear masks.

But no matter how much theater owners strategize about their customers' psychology, they could run up against a tricky problem.

"The No. 1 factor for us feeling comfortable doing something is seeing a lot of other people -- especially in our peer group -- doing the thing we're nervous about. That's what the research suggests drives us," said Deborah Small, a professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

"The twist now," she said, "is that we're told to avoid crowds."

So far, the evidence shows some consumers comfortable with returning, but the numbers aren't huge.

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