SALT LAKE CITY — The movies are returning — slowly. And so are the patrons.
As major movie studios make tentative plans to bring new movies back to theaters in July — “Unhinged” on July 1, “Tenet” on July 17 and “Mulan” on July 24 — the industry still faces lots of unanswered questions and logistical challenges to meet those premiere dates.
In the interim, Utah’s theaters are taking myriad approaches to reopening based on their individual capabilities and roadblocks amid the coronavirus pandemic. National chains, regional chains, independent theaters and drive-ins are all going about things slightly differently.
Approximately half of movie screens across the United States are owned by three national theater chains: AMC, Regal Cinemas and Cinemark, NPR recently reported. None of these three chains plan on reopening before June.
Currently, the places in Utah to publicly view new movies include a handful of drive-ins and Larry H. Miller Megaplex Theatres — albeit with new restrictions/procedures/protocols.
On May 13, select Megaplex Theatres began accepting reservations for private family screenings. Under this new Megaplex offer, families/households of up to 20 people can reserve a movie screen for one screening of a recent or classic film, which includes an order of large popcorn and a large drink for each attendee, all for $375 plus taxes. The screenings are currently available at Megaplex locations in Centerville, Holladay, Lehi, Ogden, South Jordan and St. George.
According to a press release from Megaplex Theatres, “All of the seats and high-contact surfaces in the auditorium will be cleaned and sanitized before and after each Private Family Movies experience. For the health and safety of all, guests are required to follow all appropriate CDC guidelines.”
In a separate email, a Megaplex Theatres rep told the Deseret News that while all Megaplex employees are wearing protective masks, patrons are not required to do so.
“Guests are invited to wear masks if they choose,” the rep said.
Blake Anderson, Megaplex’s president, told the Deseret News that in this promotion’s first week, the theater chain had more than 400 bookings.
“And it’s good for our team,” Anderson said. “It’s good for us to begin that ramp-up process.”
According to Anderson, Megaplex Theatres will likely begin offering more movie options for guests starting in late June. These offerings, he said, will probably include films that were released shortly before shutdown orders started, as well as classic movies.
The screenings will continue to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and government regulatory guidelines, which currently allow a maximum of 50 people per public gathering, with a 6-foot minimum distance between each individual or party, Anderson said. Additionally, every other row in in the cinemas will be blocked off.
“Hopefully by July we’ll all have a good sense of what our new norm is and be able to start shifting into that again,” Anderson added.
Anderson said the new normal will likely include dedicating a handful of screens per theater location, rather than just one or two, for big tentpole releases like “Tenet.”
The theater will also likely keep those tentpole movies in theaters for much longer than before, which will help movie studios reach their desired ticket sale totals, Anderson said.
“And I think Hollywood is also watching that very closely, to see how far out to space the movies, to allow us to bring in the number of people that we need to sell the amount of food and concessions to be able to keep the theaters running,” Anderson said.
Meanwhile, Utah’s few drive-in theaters are experiencing a renaissance of sorts. As the Deseret News reported in early April, certain local theaters have converted their parking lots into drive-in movies. Water Gardens Cinema 6 in Pleasant Grove was among them.
“It’s giving the employees opportunity to have work and have a paycheck, as well as giving the public something to do,” Water Gardens general manager Kyle Larsen said.
Some of Utah’s longtime drive-in theaters were still closed when shutdowns started, due to cold and wet weather. That has changed, however, as temperatures across Utah are now regularly in the 80s or higher.
Independent, non-chain theaters — the kind that focus on smaller and indie films — bear unique challenges.
Alison Kozberg, managing director of Art House Convergence, a nonprofit that works with approximately 200 independent theaters across the United States, told NPR, “Reopening might actually require a substantial amount of investment on the part of theaters. It would require buying new equipment and new hygiene products to keep the theater clean and safe in accordance with guidelines to mitigate the spread of COVID. For some theaters the expense is going to be viable, but for others it’s going to be quite overwhelming.”
The Salt Lake Film Society, which operates downtown Salt Lake City’s Broadway Centre Cinemas and Tower Theatre, has temporarily closed both theaters, while launching SLFS @ Home, a ticketed streaming service for new movies.
In a letter posted on the SLFS website on April 29, Barb Guy, SLFS’s director of public relations and marketing, said SLFS has received a $200,000 challenge grant, in which all donated funds will be matched up to $200,000.
As for when the Broadway and Tower will officially reopen, that’s uncertain. In an email to the Deseret News, an SLFS representative simply said, “We’re not there yet.”
According to a new study from the movie-testing company EDO, 75% of respondents claimed they were more likely to reenter theaters if those theaters undertook certain safety measures (91% said these theaters should have hand sanitizer stations throughout, and 86% favored limited showtimes to allow thorough cleaning time between screenings).
The study also found 77% of respondents said employees should wear face masks, 70% said employees should get their temperatures checked before work and 70% said attendees should also wear face masks.
Additionally, 60% of respondents were willing to having their temperatures taken at the theater, while approximately 5% thought no safety measures were necessary.
For all the current preparations and precautions across Utah theaters, Hollywood studios will likely decide to release new movies based on COVID-19 rates in its biggest markets, such as New York City and Los Angeles. Since those cities are often among the hardest hit by COVID-19, new movies might not come to the Beehive State, regardless of Utah’s COVID-19 numbers.
“Unless New York and L.A. actually open (this summer) — and that is just seeming more and more impossible as we go — there is no way a studio is going to open a movie, especially a tentpole,” Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations, recently told the Indianapolis Star. “Science and education will not allow for it.”