When movie theaters announced plans to reopen, their mission was simple: Convince audiences it will be safe to return to cinemas in the age of coronavirus.
That meant reducing seating capacity to help ensure physical distancing, implementing rigorous cleaning procedures and encouraging contact-less payments when possible. It involved a splashy ad campaign, boasting A-list filmmakers, reminding consumers of the pleasures of enjoying an oversized Coke, a tub of popcorn and the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Safety precautions, they claimed, would be state-of-the art. Medical experts from Harvard were enlisted and new technologies, such as high-end ventilation filters and electrostatic sprayers, would be tapped to keep theaters COVID-19 free.
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And, of course, exhibitors would strongly recommend — but not require — audiences to wear masks.
Last week, AMC, Cinemark and Regal, the three biggest theater chains, said face coverings would not be mandatory if a particular city or country didn’t already require them. The comments didn’t generate much traction until AMC’s CEO Adam Aron offered an explanation for his chain’s position, saying “We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy.” Naturally, political controversy promptly ensued.
Pressed about the dangers of ignoring public health advice and possibly endangering employees and audiences, Aron doubled down. “The U.S. is a big country and the coronavirus situation is different from state to state, locality to locality,” he said, noting that the number of cases in Kansas, where AMC is headquartered, paled in comparison to hotspots like New York or California. He bemoaned the fact that mask-wearing had become the latest touchpoint in America’s seemingly endless culture wars, adding, “It’s unfortunate that it’s become a political issue, but it has.”
If Aron had intended for AMC to sidestep the debate roiling the country over when and how it is safe to reopen, he missed the mark. His comments were widely criticized and sparked backlash online with Twitter users calling to #BoycottAMC. Studio executives were privately horrified, as were employees at both AMC and its competitors. They believed that Aron had upended plans to reposition theaters — a reopening that had been in the works for months — potentially jeopardizing billions of dollars in ticket sales. Other rivals, such as Alamo Drafthouse, saw an opportunity, quickly declaring that its theaters would require masks, and getting kudos on social media in the process.
To its credit, the exhibition sector quickly went into damage control. AMC and Regal have since reversed course and will require all of its guests to wear masks when multiplexes reopen starting next month, though Cinemark has not revised its stance. But the public dispute about wearing masks in enclosed spaces interrupted the larger message about whether or not it is safe to return to the movies. In parts of the country that are further along in plans to reopen, such as Florida and Arizona, cases of coronavirus are rapidly rising.
“It just goes to show you that trying to restart this engine in the middle of a pandemic is not a good idea because nobody knows what is coming down the line,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations.
He lauds the theater chains for quickly pivoting on their stance to now require masks, but questions whether it tampers with the public’s trust. “How do you make people feel safe now at AMC or Regal when they flip-flop so quickly? It becomes a slippery slope,” he said.
Movie theater owners toe an especially sensitive line when it comes to masks. For one thing, their business relies on the notion of escapism, distracting patrons from the woes of the outside world with superhero adventures or special effects-driven extravaganzas. A litany of regulations could serve to remind these viewers that any public activities are a risky proposition when there’s a highly contagious virus still working its way through the country. They also need concession stand sales to justify turning the lights back on — and munching on snacks and sipping on soda defeats the purpose of wearing a face mask.
“That’s the catch-22 of this whole thing,” Bock said. “There’s no way to force masks when you’re selling concessions. If one or two people aren’t wearing them, nobody might as well be. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s a facade of safety.”
The problem, though, is that chains such as AMC and Regal are widespread, with outposts in both red and blue states. They have to walk a tightrope between making people feel safe and alienating customers in more rural and socially conservative areas, where, as Aron noted, wearing a mask has become something of a political statement.
And that’s just the big chains. Smaller theaters in communities where coronavirus has remained something of a distant problem would prefer to take a hands-off approach when overseeing customer behavior. Jeff Logan, who owns a small theater chain in South Dakota, says that mandates on masks isn’t a “one size fits all” solution. He notes that his theaters are in a more rural part of the country, one that hasn’t seen an outbreak like major metropolises.
“The national chains are caught in a situation where they’re getting pressure from people in more affected areas, understandably,” Logan said. “I’m in a state with no restrictions on capacity or requirements to wear masks. They aren’t seeing it from the viewpoint from an area where there hasn’t been an outbreak.”
Logan argues that theaters have been subjected to closer scrutiny than other venues that host patrons in larger settings, like restaurants.
“Any particular attention given to a theater is unjustified,” he said. “Most theaters are down to 50% capacity anyway, and they may be even distancing beyond that. Everyone is facing forward and they aren’t interacting or talking, so they aren’t spewing germs into the air.”
Maybe movie theaters are receiving greater scrutiny than other sectors of the economy, but Aron’s comments are partly to blame for injecting cinemas in the middle of a fight between those Americans who believe that masks are an essential tool for staying healthy and those who maintain that any restrictions are an infringement on personal freedoms, medical science be damned.
In the process, a campaign to remind people how much they missed the communal experience of going to the movies was derailed and became instead an illustration of how sharply divided the U.S. is in an era of plague and politicization.
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