New Safety Standards for Moviegoing as U.S. Theaters Reopen

LOS ANGELES — “Some people go to the gym. Some people go to church,” Megan Colligan, the president of Imax Entertainment, said at a news conference on Friday to mark the reopening of theaters in much of the United States. “And some people really do need to go to the movies.”

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The film industry is holding its breath that she is right.

For the first time since March, when the pandemic brought much of American life to a halt, the nation’s major multiplex chains are selling tickets and serving popcorn again — although not in six states (New York, California, New Jersey, North Carolina, Maryland and New Mexico) where government officials say it remains too dangerous.

To help convince the rest of the country that moviegoing is safe, Ms. Colligan and the chief executives of the four largest theater chains in the United States — AMC Entertainment, Cinemark, Marcus Theaters and Regal Cinemas — appeared together via Zoom on Friday to announce uniform health protocols: mask requirements, limited capacity, no condiment stations, plexiglass partitions and enhanced air-filtration systems (or at least in top working order).

Most of the protocols, including limiting capacity to 40 percent or 50 percent (depending on the chain), had already been announced piecemeal by the companies. But consumer research, they said, indicated that moviegoers wanted to know that standards were uniform.

So they unveiled a campaign called CinemaSafe. More than 2,600 theaters operating more than 30,000 screens in the United States have signed on, according to the executives. Participating locations will display logos with a green check mark on a theater seat and the slogan “Your safety is our focus.”

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Credit…Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Credit…Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The group also sought to position moviegoing as no different from other public activities to which many people had returned, like eating in restaurants. Dr. Joyce L. Sanchez, an infectious-disease expert at the Medical College of Wisconsin, noted that most films run about 90 minutes to two hours.

“It’s pretty similar to the time on a short-distance flight, which a lot of America is doing at this point,” she said at the news conference, which was organized by the National Association of Theater Owners, a trade group. Dr. Sanchez was not paid by the theater association to give her assessment of CinemaSafe.

But what about mask enforcement (in the dark, no less)? Some airlines have been kicking people off flights if they refuse to wear masks.

“We already do routine checks as movies are playing to make sure the sound and picture quality are excellent,” Mooky Greidinger, the chief executive of Cineworld, which owns Regal, said in a phone interview earlier in the week. “Those people will now be watching to see that people are wearing masks. These people will be opening an extra eye.”

That responsibility could pose challenges for theater workers, some of whom are teenagers. Retailers have had difficulties policing mask policies. In some instances, fights have broken out.

Mr. Greidinger said his company had already reopened its theaters in Britain and other European countries and had experienced “very, very small numbers of arguments.” Regarding mask comfort, he said: “I’m not going to say it’s the greatest. But after 10 minutes they will forget.”

This weekend, movie offerings include “Unhinged,” a road-rage thriller starring Russell Crowe that will play in more than 1,800 theaters in the United States and Canada. An X-Men movie, “The New Mutants,” and a faith-based film, “Fatima,” roll out next Friday. Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated “Tenet” arrives on Sept. 3 in the United States.

Movie theater companies are desperate to begin selling tickets again. Domestic ticket sales so far this year total $1.8 billion, a 76 percent decline from the same period in 2019.

Credit…Angela Weiss/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Regal and its competitors, however, make most of their money on concessions. But is it a good idea to be munching on popcorn — and removing one’s mask while doing so — during a movie?

Mr. Greidinger said it was. After all, he noted, everyone’s mouth will be pointed in the same direction while chewing. And chewing (with one’s mouth closed) without a mask is considered safer than speaking without one.

Dr. Sanchez seemed less certain, saying she would encourage patrons to minimize eating and drinking during a screening. She noted that respiratory droplets carrying the virus had been shown to travel up to 16 feet.

“Going to the movies is not risk free,” she said. But she did offer tips for anyone returning to a theater this weekend.

“Honor the people around you,” she said. “Speak up. Hold our movie companies accountable for what they are promising.”

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