Movie Theaters Can Reopen... As Long As Crowds Don't Come

The marquee of the Vista Theatre in Los Feliz, seen on Sunday, May 3, 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. (Elina Shatkin/LAist)

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For months, the studios behind a live-action Mulan and Christopher Nolan's drama Tenet have been hoping movie theaters could reopen in time to show their films. Now, California has answered their prayers, saying multiplexes can indeed start firing up their popcorn poppers.

The state announced Monday that theaters can begin showing movies as soon as this Friday, but with dramatically lower capacities than before the pandemic.

The recommendations from California's Department of Public Health and Department of Industrial Relations come just weeks before Tenet (July 17) and Mulan (July 24) were set to premiere as the most prominent studio releases since the nation's theaters were shuttered in mid-March.

The guidelines for exhibitors stipulate that cinemas must "limit attendance to 25% of theater capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower."

The state also recommended that multiplex visitors and staff wear face coverings and practice "physical distancing to the maximum extent possible." They want seats to be taped off and have washable or disposable covers. They also want arrival times be staggered so moviegoers don't enter the auditorium at the same time.

The state's advice also applies to businesses such as bowling alleys and miniature golf courses.

While the rules cover theaters in Los Angeles, the nation's No. 1 movie market, there is no such advice yet in place for New York, the second-most popular film market in the country.

It's unclear whether any of the biggest theater chains will open their doors immediately, as only a handful of films are currently scheduled to debut over the coming months. Those chains also may wait for capacity limits to increase to 50%.


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Nevertheless, the news arrives at a critical moment for exhibitors, some of which have been teetering on bankruptcy as every penny of box office revenue vanished overnight.

AMC Entertainment, the nation's biggest theater chain, told Wall Street analysts last week that "substantial doubt exists about our ability to continue as a going concern."

While Warner Bros. and Disney have kept their respective titles on the release calendar during the pandemic, other studios (and even Disney itself) have shifted films once set for a theatrical release to video-on-demand platforms, including this Friday's Judd Apatow movie "The King of Staten Island," from NBCUniversal.

In the weeks after Tenet and Mulan, planned theatrical releases include The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run and Wonder Woman: 1984, both of which postponed earlier theatrical releases until mid-August.

The National Assn. of Theater Owners and Warner Bros. declined to comment on the state's decision. Disney did not immediately reply to emails seeking comment.


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