For the first time since March, the Colonial Theatre is open in downtown Phoenixville. The historic Chester County movie palace is showing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the live version of The Jungle Book, and Deadpool.
Its other features?
Ample space between seats, frequent sanitization of amenities, and a mask requirement for staff and moviegoers — unless they’re eating popcorn in their seats, at least six feet from other groups.
The success of the Colonial’s reopening hinges on people abiding by the new rules of a post-pandemic moviegoing experience, said marketing director Bob Trate. If they don’t, they’ll jeopardize not only public health but also the shared sense of escape that comes with seeing a film on the big screen.
“You just want to go and turn your brain off and watch a movie,” he said, “and not worry about somebody coughing behind you.”
In Montgomery County, the Water Tower Cinema is also open, offering $4 tickets, $4 concession bundles, and $1 masks if customers forget theirs. It’s added a bevy of safety measures, including 45-minute theater cleanings between showings and directional arrows on the floors, and is advertising its size, which is larger than some older small-town theaters and makes social distancing easier.
The theaters want people to come out, but they also want to avoid crowds. On July 10 and 11, the Colonial’s annual Blobfest — a commemoration of the 1950s sci-fi film that can draw thousands — will be held virtually.
The cautious reopenings will serve as test runs for the community institutions and measuring sticks for the region’s other independent cinemas as they look to emerge from the coronavirus shutdown.
The virus is more likely to spread from person-to-person in small, indoor spaces than in outdoor ones. Which means even if theaters require masks, rope off seats, and ramp up cleaning, they cannot eliminate the risk of infection. That’s why drive-in theaters, including the Delsea Drive-In Theatre in Vineland, N.J., have seen a resurgence because people can enjoy a movie from the safety of their cars, separate from other groups.
New Jersey has not set a date for when indoor movie theaters can reopen, but theaters in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties were permitted to when Southeastern Pennsylvania moved to the green phase June 26. Philadelphia theaters are waiting for the OK from the city, which opted for a slower entry into green and this week hit the brakes after an uptick in cases.
The big chains — Regal, AMC, and Cinemark — pushed back their reopenings to late July as cases spiked across the country and Hollywood delays new films, which is why theaters like the Colonial and Water Tower are relying on second-run movies to draw crowds.
Reopening poses health and financial risks. Theater executives are asking themselves whether they can make money at reduced capacity. Even if they can in theory, they don’t know whether enough people will return.
As they weigh when and how to reopen, they echo competing narratives, sometimes in the same breath. They say they’ve heard from people who can’t wait to immerse themselves in a movie after being stuck at home. Meanwhile, others tell them the anxiety of sitting in an enclosed space with strangers would make it impossible to enjoy the experience as they once did.
A recent survey published in Variety found that 70% of people say they’d rather watch a new movie at home than in the theaters, if they were released at the same time for the same price.
The competition from Netflix, Hulu, and video-on-demand isn’t new, though, and many theaters have weathered it before.
When Water Tower Cinema surveyed patrons of its Lansdale theater when the region was under a stay-at-home order, about 70% reported they would feel comfortable returning to the theater two weeks to two months after it opens, said Teri Yago-Ryan, vice president of communications for the Goldenberg Group, which owns Water Tower.
Several movie theaters across the region are holding off on reopening. They’re counting on donations, curbside popcorn pickups, and the generosity of members — who are paying to access online movies and film classes — to cover the bills. Many members are older, with a higher risk of complications if they get sick, and among the last people who will feel safe returning to the movies.
Samuel Scott, executive director of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, is confident people will eventually be back.
“You can have all the 4K, HD, UHD, big-screen TVs at home … but they have none, zero, of the experience of going to a movie theater, sitting in a space — whether it’s packed or not packed — and hearing the sighs of other people, laughing, crying, all those emotions,” he said.
Sometimes, he stands in the middle of his theaters, looks out on the rows of empty seats, and remembers what it felt like to share that experience with other people, without fear.
The Main Line nonprofit theater, which has 9,000 members, has not set a date for reopening. If the region’s cases don’t surge, the day could come in August, he said, but it will more likely be closer to the end of 2020.
So he won’t reopen soon. To allow for social distancing, he’d have to reduce capacity to 20%. He doesn’t know what movies he’d show, he said, and worries business would be slow.
“Of all the other things that have been limited to people in terms of the stay-at-home order, I’m wondering if people are going to rush back to movie theaters,” he said. Movies are “one thing people have been getting at home.“
They’re preparing to reduce capacity and require masks. But he knows, he said, that no matter how much theaters plan, some elements are out of their control.
“We’re not going to have people walking up and down during movies telling people to put their masks on,” he said. “At some point, you have to appeal to people’s better natures and hope they do the right thing.”
Despite the uncertainty, Greenblatt is hopeful.