Big Theater Chains Tout Safe-Moviegoing Measures

Customers visit the concession stand at an AMC movie theater in Austin, Texas, on Aug. 20.

Photo: Sergio Flores/Bloomberg News

America’s largest movie-theater chains are reopening a significant number of locations after more than five months of coronavirus shutdowns—and hope industrywide safety protocols will draw people out of their homes.

The nation’s three major chains— AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., AMC -8.79% Cinemark Holdings Inc. CNK -0.24% and Cineworld Group PLC’s Regal Entertainment Group—on Friday announced initiatives designed to encourage moviegoers’ return. Most cinemas closed their doors in March after the pandemic led authorities to shut down businesses and public spaces.

The voluntary initiatives, dubbed CinemaSafe, largely follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public-health entities. The protocols include mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing, reduced auditorium capacities and a push for more contactless payment options.

AMC, Regal and Cinemark have all been hemorrhaging cash. Hollywood studios have held off releasing costly, high-profile movies to theaters—making it unfeasible for most theaters to reopen, even after many states said they could. That begins to change this coming weekend with the first major nationwide release since the pandemic began: actor Russell Crowe’s action movie “Unhinged,” released by Solstice Studios. The independent company had to move the film’s release date several times as plans for reopening theaters repeatedly changed.

“Unhinged” is set to play in about 1,500 U.S. theaters this weekend, offering a trial run before the debut of bigger-budget Hollywood films like Warner Bros.’ highly anticipated “Tenet,” from director Christopher Nolan. “Tenet” is opening overseas next week before its U.S. debut early next month.

Multiplexes in some major markets, including California and New York, have yet to get the government’s approval to reopen. But AMC hopes to have roughly two-thirds of its more than 600 U.S. locations open in time for “Tenet.” Regal and Cinemark are also planning to reopen gradually.

Many theaters are open in Europe and Asia, where many areas have fared better than the U.S. containing the coronavirus. But it’s critical that cash-strapped chains like AMC—which has more locations than any other chain, both in the U.S. and world-wide—find a way to reopen domestic locations as soon as possible.

“It wasn’t…enough to have an AMC safety initiative,” said the company’s chief executive, Adam Aron. “Consumers can’t always distinguish between one circuit or another, one theater over another. They need to know moviegoing is safe wherever you go see a movie,” he said.

In a news conference, Mr. Aron—along with executives from Regal and Cinemark and their trade group, the National Association of Theatre Owners—pointed out differences between theaters and bars and restaurants—such as theaters’ higher ceilings and the lack of face-to-face contact.

Medical professionals who spoke at the news conference said it would be difficult to know for sure how safe it is to return to theaters.

“This is not risk-free, and it’s important for the public to understand that,” said Dr. Joyce Sanchez, an infectious-disease specialist from the Medical College of Wisconsin. “As of today, there isn’t any medical literature [or] published studies out there that show that a movie theater has been a venue for viral transmission. Honestly, time will tell.”

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