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As Movie Theaters Reopen, Will Audiences Return?

The West Newton Cinema in August. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The West Newton Cinema in August. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

This past Sunday afternoon, I did something I haven’t done in five months. I went to the movies.

I understand that for normal people five months doesn’t constitute much of a break between visits to the cinema. A lot of folks I know tend to only go once or twice a year. But I’ve been going three or four times a week for the past couple of decades, even before it became my job. Going to the movies is my favorite thing to do in the world. It gets me out of my head and away from myself, transported by a giant screen and overwhelmed by surround sound, seeing the world through someone else’s eyes for a couple of hours and running a gamut of emotions in the company of friends and strangers. Like most people, I’ve been streaming a ton of stuff during the pandemic, but home viewing is missing that sense of ceremony, not to mention the communal experience of gathering together with others to partake in a shared dream. I miss it terribly.

But on Sunday, I didn’t end up going inside the auditorium at West Newton Cinema and watching a movie. I don’t feel comfortable doing so just yet.

West Newton Cinema owner David Bramante. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
West Newton Cinema owner David Bramante. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Instead, I hung around the lobby for a few and chatted with my old friend Dave Bramante, who, with his brother Jim, has owned the West Newton Cinema for the past 42 of the theater’s 83 years in operation. I’ve been there hundreds of times but I swear I’ve never seen the place so sparkling clean. The smell of sanitizer overpowers the popcorn aroma, with the concession stand now walled off by protective plexiglass and the spacious lobby eerily empty of all the benches where people used to wait for their shows to start seating. Single chairs are now sparsely placed at socially distanced positions, though I didn’t see anybody sitting around this afternoon.

The West Newton Cinema reopened on July 17, capping capacity in accordance with state guidelines at 25 patrons for each of its six screens. So far, selling out hasn’t exactly been a concern. But Bramante assures me attendance “is getting better every week.” In the absence of new releases they’ve been showing mostly classics like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Casablanca” and “The Wizard of Oz,” but he tells me that by far their biggest seller has been “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” a nifty little noir starring Elisabeth Debicki and Mick Jagger that was pulled from cinemas back in March and recently rereleased exclusively to theaters by distributor Sony Pictures Classics. Bramante’s cautiously optimistic that business will continue to improve as the movie industry starts revving up again.

The country’s largest theater chain, AMC Theatres, is slated to reopen over 100 multiplexes around the country this Thursday, Aug. 20, including nine locations in the Boston area. According to a vaguely dystopian video on the company’s website, AMC has partnered with Clorox as their “Cleaning Advisor” and instituted new “Safe & Clean” policies involving HEPA vacuums and electrostatic disinfectant sprayers. Concession transactions will now be cashless to cut down on contamination, though at press time the site still presents contradictory information as to whether or not food and drink will be available.

There’s been a lot of this kind of confusion with regard to AMC’s reopening, particularly an early PR disaster back in June when the company neglected to include mandatory masks on its list of new safety measures. “We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy,” said CEO and president Adam Aron. "We thought it might be counterproductive if we forced mask-wearing on those people who believe strongly that it is not necessary.” After much outcry, the theater chain reversed course and made masks a requirement except while you are “enjoying concessions.” (So basically you can take yours off if you buy stuff.)

Before resuming regular business on Friday, AMC Theatres will be devoting Thursday to older titles like “The Goonies,” “Grease” and “Back to the Future” at the retro ticket price of 15 cents. The bargain rate is reportedly intended as a throwback to when the company was founded in 1920, but I’m not the first person to point out this also means they’ve reverted to 1918 pandemic prices. Ah, nostalgia. Further head-scratching ensued last week when AMC’s initial announcement included Somerville’s Assembly Row, even though the city is still largely operating in phase two of its reopening plan, meaning movie theaters are not permitted to open yet.

“I mean, does that not scream how out of touch they are with the communities they operate in?” asks Ian Judge, director of operations for the Somerville Theatre and Arlington’s Capitol Theatre. Judge’s cinemas have been dark since March, he and his employees now furloughed with no plans to reopen anytime soon. “It’s hard to tell if there’ll be much demand,” he says. “I think our audiences are more cautious and science-based in their choices, so finding a profitable level of business is likely way in the future. The family that owns the theaters are very committed to keeping them open, so there’s maybe more hope there than some places. But they don’t have inexhaustible resources if this drags on.”

The bargain rate is reportedly intended as a throwback to when the company was founded in 1920, but I’m not the first person to point out this also means they’ve reverted to 1918 pandemic prices. Ah, nostalgia.

Besides, there might not be much in the way of new Hollywood blockbusters to lure audiences back for some time. Los Angeles cinemas are still shuttered, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent shockwaves through the film industry on Monday morning when he refused to allow the state’s cinemas to reopen. “On a relative risk scale, a movie theater is less essential and poses a high risk. It is congregant. It is one ventilation system. You are seated there for a long period of time,” said Cuomo. “Even if you are at 50% capacity with one or two seats between the two of you, this is a risk situation and… movie theaters are not that high on the list of essentials.”

It’s tough to imagine a studio like Warner Bros. pulling the trigger on Christopher Nolan’s $200 million “Tenet” if they can’t show it in New York and LA. After a few postponements of the film’s original July 17 release date, it’s now set to open overseas this weekend with a U.S. release in “select cities” scheduled for Sept. 3. But I wouldn’t count on that if they can’t “select” the two biggest movie towns in the country. We’re more likely to see stuff like “The New Mutants,” which was shot here in Boston back in 2017 and after a tumultuous post-production period is now set for its fifth release date next weekend. (A recent round of re-shoots was planned and then scrapped when it was determined that stars Maisie Williams and Anya Taylor-Joy had aged out of their roles and the new footage wouldn't match.) Tellingly, Disney just shifted the mega-budget summer tentpole “Mulan” directly to their Disney+ streaming service at a steep surcharge that may further redefine the future of the film industry. The Mouse House seems confident in people coming back to their theme parks, but less sure about cinemas.

“I understand that people long for ‘normal’ experiences. But as an adult I realize that we do not always get what we want when we want it."

Nancy Campbell, Independent Film Festival Boston

Meanwhile, the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s program manager Mark Anastasio told me he’s “really been feeling the itch to start putting on shows for people again.” His outdoor screening of “Shutter Island” on the grounds of Medfield State Hospital where the movie was shot had originally been intended to close out the Coolidge’s “Marty After Midnite” Scorsese retrospective back in May. It’s had a monster of a time in the rescheduling process, especially last week when Gov. Charlie Baker slashed the capacity for outdoor gatherings in half shortly after tickets for the September show sold out. But fear not, Anastasio and company figured out how to convert the screening to a pop-up drive-in setup in accordance with state guidelines, with two additional shows added due to overwhelming popular demand.

“People really want to get out and congregate safely somehow,” he said. Like the Brattle Theatre, the Coolidge has recently begun renting one of its auditoriums out to small groups under strict social distancing protocols, so you can watch movies on a big screen with friends and family from your quarantine bubble. Though there are no plans to reopen for commercial screenings at present, Anastasio’s still working on outdoor alternatives like the “Shutter Island” show, including some wild ideas for what to do with the Coolidge After Midnite’s annual all-night Halloween movie marathon. (October is a long way off but let’s be realistic, 12 hours in an enclosed theater probably still won’t be a great idea.)

“I understand that people long for ‘normal’ experiences. But as an adult I realize that we do not always get what we want when we want it,” says Nancy Campbell, program director for the Independent Film Festival Boston, who is currently considering options for a virtual or hybrid event this fall and “pondering the reality of a festival in 2021.”

The AMC cinema at Assembly Square remains closed since the city of Somerville has not adopted the phase three opening protocols of the state. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The AMC cinema at Assembly Square remains closed since the city of Somerville has not adopted the phase three opening protocols of the state. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

But right now she’s suspicious of AMC’s swift reopening and gimmick pricing, particularly in light of the chain’s “consistently poor standards for exhibition, cleanliness and patron experience... I’m probably showing my age here, but their latest deal reminds me of the Columbia House Record and Tape Club from the ‘80s. Fifteen cents may seem like a bargain but you risk paying later with a case of COVID, extended medical problems and bills or potentially your life instead of just a bunch of overpriced music.”

I can tell you that whenever I do finally feel comfortable sitting down in an auditorium and watching a movie again, it’s going to be at one of our local independent theaters and not some chain multiplex. AMC might be talking a big game right now about their new Clorox procedures, but darn near every time I’ve been to one of their cinemas I seem to spend half the time in the lobby trying to tell somebody what’s wrong with the picture or sound. If they’re as serious about safety as they are about proper presentation, we’ll all be dead before anyone can spoil the surprise twists in “Tenet.”

On my way out of West Newton, I asked Bramante how he thought AMC was going to keep customers healthy when they can’t even keep their films in focus. “We all have our struggles, Sean,” he laughed through his mask, “and you can quote me on that.”

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Sean Burns Twitter Film Critic
Sean Burns is a film critic for The ARTery.

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