Over the next few weeks, multiplex chains will start opening the doors of movie theaters in an attempt to get back to something approaching business as usual following the months-long hiatus caused by the still ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. What films will be available to watch? How will the experience be different from going to the movies pre-outbreak? And, most importantly, how safe (or risky) will it be to attend indoor movie screenings?

Not all theaters will be opening at once. Mark Zoradi is CEO of Cinemark, which owns around 350 theaters in the U.S. He explains that the chain will start screening films in stages. “Beginning on July 3, we will open up one-third of our theaters,” he says. “The next week, the next third; the following week, the next third. So, by the time we get to July 17, we’re fully opened and operational.” Initially, many of Cinemark’s screens will show old movies, including a 10th-anniversary rerelease of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, before switching to new films as they come out. The Selena Gomez-produced romantic-comedy The Broken Hearts Gallery is arriving in theaters July 17; Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan and the Alison Brie-starring horror movie The Rental will be released on July 24; and Nolan’s science fiction-spy film Tenet is out July 31. If everything goes to plan, August will see the debut of the Armando Iannucci-directed The Personal History of David Copperfield (Aug. 14), comedy threequel Bill & Ted Face the Music (Aug. 21), the racially-charged horror movie Antebellum (Aug. 21), and the much-delayed superhero tale The New Mutants (Aug. 28). Ahead of all those films comes the road rage thriller Unhinged, which will hit theaters July 10 and stars Russell Crowe as a maniac who starts targeting those close to a character played by Caren Pistorius after she honks her horn at him in traffic.

Unhinged is the first release from the recently founded Solstice Studios whose CEO Mark Gill moved the movie up from its original September release date so it would be the first major movie to arrive on screens once theaters reopen. “When Mark Gill explained it to me, he also accompanied it with a stack of research that the cinemas had been doing and Solstice had taken on themselves,” says Crowe. “The research said that the thing people were most missing is the cinema and the second part of that research was, ‘If you get to go the cinema what do you want to see?’ and the biggest answer was ‘thriller.’ There definitely is some comfort in going into a room and having this experience where all the crazy s— is imagined. Local governments and theater owners [are] working on safety as the absolute priority.”

That emphasis on safety will inevitably change the cinema-going experience. Local authorities are limiting auditorium capacities and chains are attempting to ensure that patrons continue to social distance as well as putting other safety measures into effect. “Nearly all the seats are going to be purchased online and we will automatically buffer seats around you,” says Zoradi of Cinemark’s safety protocols. “That’s the biggest difference people are going to notice. The second thing they’re going to notice is, the theaters are not only clean — because we’ve always kept them clean — but they sparkle. We’ve put on every shift a monitor responsible for making sure that all the protocols we’ve put in place are completely done. Every morning, every single auditorium will be sprayed with a disinfectant. In between every show, we’ll go back in and clean all the seats that were utilized during that time as well. All of our employees are being rehired now, and they’re all going through extensive training on all the new safety protocols, and of course, there’s going to be hand sanitizers and the seat wipes and all of those kinds of things that you will see as well. We won’t be taking cash transactions, everything will be on a credit card or a gift card. As you walk in, I think people are going to notice, ‘Wow, this place is really clean’ and it’s not going to look busy, because we’re going to stagger all the showtimes so that no two shows are starting at the same time or ending at the same time, so you don’t have a big crowd in the lobby. So, I think people are going to come back and feel like, ‘Huh, these guys really paid attention,’ and I think we need to do it if we want to encourage people to come back to the movies.”

Some details are still being ironed out. Or ironed out again. In an interview published in Variety on June 18, AMC Theatres CEO Adam Aron revealed that, while the chain’s employees would all be required to wear masks, it would not be compulsory for customers to do so. “We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy,” said Aron. “We thought it might be counterproductive if we forced mask-wearing on those people who believe strongly that it is not necessary. We think that the vast majority of AMC guests will be wearing masks. When I go to an AMC feature, I will certainly be wearing a mask and leading by example.” Aron’s announcement drew criticism from several filmmakers, including Doctor Sleep director Mike Flanagan. “Face masks are not political,” tweeted Flanagan. “@AMCTheatres, please reconsider this decision to intentionally endanger your own customers.” On June 19, AMC Theatres changed position and announced it will require guests to wear masks when the chain begins reopening venues next month. “This announcement prompted an intense and immediate outcry from our customers, and it is clear from this response that we did not go far enough on the usage of mask,” the company said in a statement. “At AMC Theatres, we think it is absolutely crucial that we listen to our guests. Accordingly, and with the full support of our scientific advisors, we are reversing course and are changing our guest mask policy. As we reopen theatres, we now will require that all AMC guests nationwide wear masks as they enter and enjoy movies at our theatres. The speed with which AMC moved to revise our mask policies is a reflection of our commitment to the safety and health of our guests.”

So, how safe will it be to visit a movie theater? Dr. Anne W. Rimoin is a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and an expert on emerging infections who is keen to emphasize that attending any kind of indoor gathering at the moment carries more risk than before the outbreak began, no matter what precautions have been taken. “The rules apply no matter where you are,” she says. “We need to be socially distant, we need to avoid crowds of people in the same closed spaces, we need to be wearing masks, we need good hygiene, and avoiding commonly touched surfaces, and that’s very hard to do in a theater setting. We’re seeing upticks in numbers of cases because things have been reopening, people have been going out, and we’re likely to be seeing these trends continue. Just because things are opening up, doesn’t mean that it’s safe. In fact, it is less safe right now that it was when everything was shut down. I think that people often conflate the idea that we’re opening with safety. We’re at a very delicate moment in the point of this pandemic as we reopen. How safe is it really? I, as an epidemiologist, I would prefer a drive-in.”

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