Some theaters will be opening their doors — but what will they be screening?

By Clark Collis
May 01, 2020 at 12:51 PM EDT
Credit: DreamWorks Animation

Do you want to see Trolls World Tour on the big screen? Do you live in the San Antonio area? Do you have no particular fear of mixing with strangers — albeit while social-distancing — at a time when most Americans are self-isolating indoors because of the coronavirus outbreak?

Then do we have good news for you.

On Monday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that he would allow the state's stay at home order to expire on Thursday. This meant cinemas would be allowed to open on Friday, albeit at much reduced 25 percent capacity. On Wednesday, Tim Handren, CEO of the San Antonio-based theatre chain Santikos Entertainment Company, announced that he will reopen three venues this weekend, starting on Saturday. The films screening at the cinemas include such recent releases as Bloodshot, The Invisible Man, The Hunt, and — yes — Trolls World Tour, as well as 1997's Jennifer Lopez-starring music biopic Selena. The Santikos website also optimistically teases the July 17 debut of director Christopher Nolan's shrouded-in-secrecy and much-anticipated new thriller Tenet, one of the few movies whose planned release over the next few months has not been pushed back because of the pandemic.

"We will have absolute social-distancing guidelines in all the common areas, certainly in our lobby," said Handren in a video message posted on YouTube, standing in a deserted multiplex foyer. "We'll have spacing established for where you come in and you queue, whether you're getting concessions or you're getting your ticket...Our employees will absolutely be wearing masks and other personal protective equipment...We're going to have...many of the doors open, so you don't have to touch the doors."

Handren made clear in the video that he feels the public needs the experience of viewing movies on the big screen again.

"We also think that psychologically, we just need to get out of our houses and go to a place where we can enjoy a great movie and enjoy some great popcorn," he said, "and just go somewhere else and be without family and escape this reality that we have that this Covid-19 pandemic has created in our lives."

Handred may be right about the benefits of the big screen experience, as long as the venue is a safe one. But there won't be many open cinemas this weekend. Only a handful of states — Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Alaska, and a few others — have eased lockdown restrictions and a lot of cinema owners are declining the opportunity to reopen. The Alamo Drafthouse chain has been a pioneering organization over the past couple of decades, not least in its serving of food and drinks to customers during movies. But the doors of its Austin cinemas will remain closed this weekend. “Opening safely is a very complex project that involves countless new procedures and equipment, all of which require extensive training," says an Alamo Drafthouse spokesman in a statement. "This is something we cannot and will not do casually or quickly. We will not be opening this weekend. But know this, when we do open, we will be providing the safest possible experience for both our staff and our guests and we can’t wait to see you all again!”

Patrick Corcoran, Chief Communications Officer for the National Association of Theatre Owners tells EW that "not many" cinemas will be open this weekend. "It’s going to be theatre company by theatre company and location by location," he says. "There are only a few states where it’s in effect and there is not a lot of movie product out there."

Of course, there won't be a lot of new movies until there are enough cinemas open for studios and distributors to recoup production budgets. Highly anticipated popcorn fare like No Time to Die, Fast and Furious 9, Black Widow, and Mulan have all been delayed.  So, when can we expect things to get back to normal, or at least a recognizable new version of reality? That, of course, depends on whether or not the number of horrific fatalities caused by the virus really has peaked. But Corcoran hopes that many more cinemas will open in June, even if they are not showing new products, as a warm-up to the release of Tenet followed by a resumption of something approaching a familiar-looking release schedule.

"Right now, the first really big movie that’s still on the schedule is Tenet from Warner Brothers," he says. "We are aiming, [depending] on the course of this pandemic and public health orders, hopefully, to open sometime in June and have repertory product — several of the studios have been reaching out to theaters and making their library content available to movie theaters in that interim period. Then moving into the wide release [of Tenet] hopefully in mid-July. All of that of course is dependent on circumstances. We can only [act based on what] we know — and that changes daily."

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