Canadian Cinemas Map a Post-Lockdown World

Quick, name the number one box-office smash in North America. “What box office?” you ask. Haven’t theatres been closed since mid-March? It’s true that most of the continent’s approximately 45,000 cinema screens went dark shortly after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic over two months ago. Following this, nearly every major release either shifted their release date or moved to Video-On-Demand. 

All of this proved to be a blessing in disguise for independent horror film, The Wretched which without major studio backing, stars or even a decent theatre count, managed to score #1 at the North American box office not just one, but four weeks in a row. Since its release by IFC films on May 1, the film has raked in a total $584,601 from 59 theatres, most of them drive-ins able to maintain required social distancing. Not bad for a film originally scheduled to go toe-to-toe with Disney’s Black Widow (now slated for Nov 6).

It’s strange times for sure in the movie business and no one knows this better than theatre operators like Vince Guzzo. The owner of Quebec chain Cinemas Guzzo, the entrepreneur has seen his business shuttered for months, but has a bold plan to reopen despite Quebec’s high COVID case count. His target date? June 19.

 Cinema owner and Dragon’s Den star Vince Guzzo.

“We have St.-Jean-Baptiste Day here, our provincial holiday.” says Guzzo. “That’ll give us a few weeks trial run before the big pictures in the middle of July. The problem is the movie business isn’t always (about) when you wanna open, it’s what you’re opening with.”

Old favourites and a sparse slate of smaller-scale films like Unhinged with Russell Crowe (July 1) and The Outpost with Orlando Bloom (July 3) might be available to screen, but there’s no blockbuster on the schedule until Christopher Nolan’s time-jumping sci-fi feature Tenet which has so far remained firm on its July 17 release date.

Whether Tenet keeps that date may depend heavily on California and New York State reopening their theatres. “California itself represents 12% of the North American domestic box office  and New York State represents about 15%.” says Guzzo. “So you can open all of the US, but if those two markets aren’t open, I don’t have a warm fuzzy feeling that we’re going to open before then.” Canada itself represents 9-10% of the market.

While major cinema chains like Guzzo’s have shuttered entirely during the lockdown, smaller independent operations like the Dunbar Theatre in Vancouver have conjured some creative solutions to keep the lights on and the rent paid.

 Dunbar Theatre owner Ken Charko.

“We never closed, period.” says Dunbar owner Ken Charko. “We switched from public showings to private showings. We have smaller groups, everyone comes through an orientation. Before they go in, they have to wash their hands in public view so everyone can see.”

These private bookings of library titles are currently for single households only, but Charko is looking to expand that as COVID restrictions gradually relax in BC. 

“We’re looking at the new rules and we’re gonna flex that and allow two households, but through one person.” Charko continues. “That email provides the number one requirement which is contact trace. That family unit (5 people) can sit together side-by-side inside the theatre. If they have another related family unit, they have to sit twelve feet away from the other unit.”

But if private screenings of older movies aren’t to your taste, the Dunbar’s expanded concession menu might be. “We’re now a retail outlet in the way that we sell popcorn.” Charko proudly notes. “We’ve increased the line of products that we sell. We brought donuts in, we’ve got nachos in. We’re a lot more social (media) savvy. We’re always posting, letting people know what we’re doing, we’re reaching out to the community.”

And it’s that community that Charko hopes will help sustain the theatre through these unusually lean times. “We had people who did Crowdfunding. They did a Gofundme page and it was really fantastic that they did that.” he says. That fundraiser has since generated $3,742, well over its original goal of $1000.

“I’m completely okay operating the way it is right now because every one of my 20 staff get a paycheck, have a purpose and have a place to go. I see value in that. Cineplex, Landmark and other independents could not survive on what I’m generating because everything just goes to them.”

Over the last month, various state governments including Texas, Georgia, and Kansas have allowed movie theatres to reopen although most major chains like AMC, Regal and Cineplex plan to wait for more markets to catch up. As of May 24, Comscore counts 348 theatres currently open across the continent including 169 Drive-ins. Time and data will tell if this trend will continue in time for Tenet‘s expected premiere, but owners are already preparing for what a post-lowdown moviegoing experience will look like.

“It’s gonna be a different way of doing things.” admits Guzzo. “We’ve put the hand sanitizing stations before you come into the general lobby of the theatre when you get your ticket checked by the usher. I don’t wanna put my employees in a mask, but I have ordered them visors. What you really want is you want to make sure that no liquids from your body go from your mouth onto my employee’s face or whatever.”

“We have to reinforce the safety for our staff.” concurs Charko. “I can’t stress how (much) the industry has to do this.”

In addition to increased demands on staff to keep things sanitary, Guzzo also expects his customers to pull their weight. “One of the things is they’re gonna have to pick up their own garbage.” he notes. “I think it’s unreasonable to expect that you’ve sucked on a straw, you’ve handled a cup for two hours and you’ve put your hand from your mouth to the popcorn bag and then you’re just too lazy to throw it in the garbage.”

The jury is still out on whether audiences will flock to theatres (albeit keeping 2 metres apart) upon their reopening. A recent poll by the Hollywood Reporter indicates that up to 67% of audiences are unlikely to return right away. But the story of COVID changes almost day to day and audiences may yet find the confidence to return to a treasured pastime. Vince Guzzo certainly thinks so.

“I think that after three months of being confined,” he remarks as we wrap up our phone chat “people will rush to theatres, to live life again and be entertained.”

Ken Charko hopes to see audiences return as well, but is not putting any pressure on them. “Come back only when you feel comfortable.” he says. “It’s my job as an operator to make sure you feel safe. The studio’s job is to make sure you wanna come back to the theatre so they have to put out the good product.”

Movie theatres have survived everything from television and home video to digital projection and online streaming. If today’s theatre operators have anything to say about it, they’ll survive the COVID-19 era as well. Popcorn’s ready…

The Dunbar Theatre GoFundeMe is still active and can be found HERE.

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