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Movie theaters in my city are reopening Friday – are we really doing this?

Published Aug 20th, 2020 4:14PM EDT
Movie theaters reopening
Image: Mr. Music/Adobe
  • Over the next several weeks, cities around the US will see a number of movie theaters reopening, albeit with stringent new safety measures as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • It’s a high-stakes experiment, because no one knows what the effect will be on public health in cities still reeling from the coronavirus in spite of the new cleaning regimen and other processes that theaters will implement.
  • As of Thursday, the latest numbers from Johns Hopkins University show that more than 5.5 million people have been sickened by the coronavirus in the US, and more than 173,000 Americans have died.

It used to be one of the most mundane activities in the world. Now, after six months of living with the coronavirus pandemic all around us, it’s difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that movie theaters here in Memphis where I live are poised to start reopening Friday — albeit under very specific circumstances.

They’re reopening on a rolling basis, and the moviegoing experience is going to feel a lot different for all the obvious reasons … but still. We’re months away from a coronavirus vaccine. People are still dying from COVID-19. And yet, if I wanted to, I could return to the movies for the first time since the beginning of this year starting tomorrow to see the new Russell Crowe thriller Unhinged.

(Plot twist: I don’t want to, and I feel unhinged even thinking about this. At least right now.)

Moreover, it’s not just Malco, the regional cinema chain that operates movie theaters here where I live. AMC planned to reopen more than 100 movie theaters around the US on Thursday, as I type these words. As you can probably imagine, it’s not a task that these companies are taking lightly, and for a taste of the work that’s gone on to get theaters like these ready to reopen, here’s some of what Memphis’ Malco chain has said it’s doing to keep returning moviegoers safe:

  • Air conditioning unit filtration systems have been upgraded to MERV-11 filters, which Malco says remove a higher percentage of contaminants in the air and follow CDC guidelines for filtration and air cleaning systems.
  • All employees and guests must wear face masks at all times (except when eating).
  • Employees will have their temperature checked prior to starting their shift.
  • Restrooms will be cleaned and sanitized every 30 minutes.
  • Every other row in the theaters themselves will remain empty.

One of the chain’s locations near where I live has used this time of being closed during the pandemic to remodel itself and rip out half of its 2,500 seats. The thinking being that in this new era, a more intimate, clean, and less-crowded experience will be part of what lures moviegoers back to the theater.

How many of you out there are ready to do so? Atom Tickets tried to quantify an answer to that question with the results of a newly announced survey — which is a follow-up to the company’s May 2020 survey seeking an answer to the same question.

According to the company, the survey issued on August 17 received more than 16,000 responses from US  moviegoers and revealed the following: Some 74% said they’re ready to return to theaters within one month and 40% said they’re ready to return to theaters immediately. At the same time, 15% said they would wait until there’s a coronavirus vaccine before returning to theaters. This survey also found that in terms of the safety measures that audiences would most want to see in order to feel comfortable about returning, spaced-out seating is at the top of the list, with a face mask requirement for everyone also near the top of the list.

“We’re encouraged by this new survey and believe it’s a good sign for the movie industry,” Matthew Bakal, chairman and co-founder of Atom Tickets, said in a press release about these results. “Our data also showed that eagerness to return to the movies has more to do with how often you went to the movies before the pandemic rather than by age or region.”

No two ways about it, though, theaters have a tough road ahead of them. Because let’s say, for the sake of argument — even if theaters execute on the safety side utterly perfectly and no one gets sick from a visit to the theater, there’s still the task of … actually giving people something to want to go back for. It will still be several more weeks, for example, before blockbuster releases hit the big screen in the US, like Christopher Nolan’s oft-delayed Tenet (coming September 3 in the US).

A scene from director Christopher Nolan’s hotly anticipated new thriller Tenet. Image source: Warner Bros.

In the meantime, this will probably be the kind of thing you encounter for now, should you choose to venture back to the theater. If I wanted to visit the theater near me that’s reopening tomorrow, I’ve got a choice of just four films, two of which I’ve never heard of. In addition to Crowe’s Unhinged, there’s also a 10th anniversary showing of Nolan’s Inception, as well as two other titles — Cut Throat City and Words on Bathroom Walls. Fun times.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.

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