As the salty smell of artificial butter swirls around, you lean back in your squeaky seat, and the lights begin to dim. The room is somehow both freezing and stuffy, but the surround–sound volume and larger–than–life screen transport you to a fantasy world of your choosing. There’s truly nothing that compares to the timeless movie theater experience, something cinephiles have been missing since the onset of the pandemic.
Restaurants and similar institutions have begun opening at a limited capacity, and movie theaters are gradually following suit. This begs the question of whether or not it’s responsible for nonessential businesses to reopen while COVID–19 cases are still springing up left and right. Street had the opportunity to speak with several local and national movie theater companies about their health and safety protocols, as well as the financial struggles and reasoning behind their decisions to start screening once again.
AMC Theatres was unable to provide a spokesperson, but shared their “AMC Safe & Clean” policy overview. General cleaning procedures have been enhanced, air filters have been placed, and social distancing will be strictly enforced, just to name a few efforts. A ticket method known as seat blocking is in place as well: When you purchase a ticket or tickets online, the surrounding seats are automatically blocked out, so that no one outside of your party will be sitting within six feet of you. However, when it comes to chain locations, the efficacy of their protocols will remain to be seen as COVID–19 rates continue to be monitored.
AMC and other national chains are your most basic, streamlined options for returning to the movies, but smaller companies and independent theaters are worth exploring and supporting. A Philly staple, the Landmark Ritz Five, is an arthouse cinema screening award–winning indie and foreign films. Margot Gerber, Landmark Theaters’ vice president of marketing and publicity, had much to share regarding safety protocols. NATO—no, not that NATO—or the National Association of Theater Owners released a set of CDC–approved guidelines known as the CinemaSafe initiative. The company’s regional directors went above and beyond these preexisting guidelines, from training employees to use Ghostbusters–esque cleaning equipment, to understanding the varying drying times of different seat materials.
According to Gerber, theaters across the board have been down about 90% in business. Landmark specifically only has 14 of about 45 total theaters open nationally. Fortunately, there’s been a bit of an uptick in business recently due to new theatrical releases like Nomadland and Minari. They’re currently focusing only on new releases, but as the situation surrounding COVID–19 eases up—hopefully in the near future—they plan to reimplement programs like their Midnight Madness series. It’s clear that Landmark is working to limit COVID–19 spread, even as guests trickle back into seats.
About a 30–minute drive from campus sits the Bryn Mawr Film Institute (BMFI), a nonprofit theater that has adapted well to pandemic life. Director of Marketing Gina Izzo shared that BMFI is unique in that it has a strong educational component. This is crucial in keeping up community engagement from home. Maybe you don’t feel comfortable sitting in a public theater just yet; in that case, BMFI has numerous online resources for watching, discussing, and learning about films. Senior Director of Education and Administration Andrew Douglas quickly began to offer free weekly chats about classic movies, as well as various other free lectures and seminars. BMFI is currently only open for private screenings (following CinemaSafe guidelines as well), but as they gradually pivot back to in–person screenings, they plan to continue with this new virtual film empire they’ve cultivated.
Though their online programming is free, BMFI has relied heavily on donations to survive the pandemic. They’ve only been doing private rentals since February, but Izzo said that this has been successful and well received so far. Each rental includes up to $100 in concessions, a movie of your choice, and even video games. Izzo also spoke in depth about their air filtration processes, heightened cleaning regimen, personal protective equipment provided to staff, and seat–blocking system for when regular screenings commence.
Theaters can only do so much when it comes to keeping patrons safe. Ultimately, it’s up to moviegoers themselves to be responsible and respectful, which is the biggest concern when it comes to whether theaters should reopen. It should go without saying that if you or someone you’ve been in contact with is experiencing symptoms of COVID–19, you should stream a movie from home instead, and that masks and hand sanitizer are a must. But, if you miss the movie theater experience and feel safe attending, consider a local venue. In addition to the everlasting popcorn scent and luminous screen, you’ll experience a sense of artistic appreciation, education, and community—and you’ll be helping a small business stay afloat. So silence your cell phone, put on a mask, and enjoy the show.