As Georgia hurtles toward the potentially chaotic reopening next week of certain businesses and industries that governor Brian Kemp describes as “Phase 1” of the process of the state reopening for business, one of the choices of businesses to reopen stands out as particularly unusual: the state’s movie theaters. The planned April 27 date for reopening theaters would make Georgia the first state to take this particular step, but there’s a plethora of problems—chief among them, the fact that the state’s theaters aren’t prepared to reopen, especially those that are members of national chains such as AMC, Regal and Cinemark. Nevertheless, Georgia plans to reopen fitness centers, barber shops, hair salons, nail salons and churches on April 24, followed by restaurants and theaters on April 27, according to Kemp.
The first issue standing in the way of Georgian theaters reopening is the fact that most of those theaters are part of large, nationwide chains, which are universally closed and had been expecting to stay closed. Chains such as AMC, Regal and Cinemark have furloughed the vast majority of their employees, and will be required to conduct extensive safety training and prep work with those employees in order to begin phased reopenings. Essentially, they’ll have to learn entirely new ways of operating during what will still be a global pandemic, even this summer. In a comment to Variety, a spokesperson for Cinemark all but confirms this, saying “Cinemark is currently working toward a mid-summer opening date, contingent upon health and safety regulations, as well as availability of studio content.”
Likewise, a spokesperson for the National Association of Theatre Owners sums up the overall sentiment quite nicely: “Individual movie theater companies, in line with federal, state, and local guidelines, and in cooperation with health officials will decide for themselves when it is appropriate to reopen.”
That’s a far cry from a state’s governor simply saying “Hey guys, guess what? You’re open as of next week!” And as a result, it sure doesn’t seem like many (if any) of the state’s theaters will be following through on Brian Kemp’s proclamation. Why would they reopen, when their legal responsibilities surrounding to COVID-19 aren’t even clear yet? If audience members were to become infected with the virus in the initial wave of reopening, theater owners could potentially face lawsuits for having knowingly endangered those customers, which has led to reports that some chains such as AMC may go as far as conducting mandatory temperature screenings of patrons when they arrive to watch films. It all begs the question: What patrons would put up with these kinds of screenings, and potentially endanger themselves, just to go to a theater?
But wait, that’s not even all of it: Who would do all that in order to go to a theater to see older movies? Because that’s what these Georgian theaters would presumably be screening instead of new releases, for at least a few months. Because almost every single major film of the next few months has seen its release date pushed back, we have been left with a dearth of upcoming tentpole releases. There’s a single film scheduled in June, Universal comedy The King of Staten Island on June 19, but there isn’t a genuinely major release until July 17, when Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is still scheduled to open. But even after that point the release schedule is very spotty, with the only major exceptions being Mulan on July 24 and Wonder Woman 1984 on Aug. 14. Instead, theaters would be left to primarily screen older films, most likely at lower ticket prices. Combined with the fact that seats would have to be kept to lower capacities, and the majority of customers would almost certainly stay away out of concern for their safety, it begs the question of how these sparsely attended, cheap-ticketed older releases could even be profitable for a chain like AMC or Regal, or worth the potential legal hassle of reopening now.
Critics, meanwhile, have described Kemp’s plan for reopening the state as motivated by a desire to strip unemployment benefits from workers in a bevy of industries, via labeling them as “essential.” If businesses such as salons, restaurants and theaters are under no impetus to close from the state, the state could therefore deny unemployment claims from workers who choose not to return to their former jobs, claiming that they are “choosing” joblessness rather than potentially exposing themselves to the virus. The move would effectively force workers back into action regardless of safety, potentially starting the cycle of infection anew.
The state’s few independent theaters would theoretically face somewhat lower bars to reopening, as it wouldn’t be as complicated for them to train single groups of employees in the newly mandated safety measures, but owners like Christopher Escobar of Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre say they’re still expecting to remain closed for the foreseeable future. As Escobar said to Variety, he sees the historic Georgia theater remaining closed until June at the very best.
“While we’ve been hurting being closed, this certainly comes as a rather last-minute surprise,” Escobar said. “While nothing would make me happier than all of this being over and getting the ‘all clear,’ other than there being political pressure, I haven’t seen anything of the sort. I’m not a public health expert. I just know I’m not getting an indication from actual public health experts that re-opening is a good idea.”