When theaters announced plans to reopen, their mission was simple: to convince the public that it will be safe to return to theaters in the era of the coronavirus.
That meant reducing seating capacity to help ensure physical clearance, implement rigorous cleaning procedures, and encourage contactless payments when possible. It involved an eye-catching ad campaign, featuring A-list filmmakers, reminding consumers of the joys of enjoying an oversized Coke, a tub of popcorn, and Hollywood’s latest blockbuster. Security precautions, they said, would be the latest in technology. Harvard medical experts enlisted and new technologies, such as high-end ventilation filters and electrostatic sprays, would be used to keep theaters COVID-19 free.
And, of course, exhibitors would strongly recommend, but do not require, that the public wear masks.
Last week, AMC, Cinemark and Regal, the three largest theater chains, said that facial coatings would not be required if a particular city or country did not require them. The comments did not generate much traction until AMC CEO Adam Aron offered an explanation of his chain’s position, saying, “We did not want to be drawn into political controversy.” Naturally, the political controversy occurred quickly.
Pressured about the dangers of ignoring public health advice and possibly endangering employees and the public, Aron doubled down. “The United States is a large country and the coronavirus situation is different from state to state, from locality to locality,” he said, noting that the number of cases in Kansas, where the AMC headquarters are, paled compared to critical points like New York or California. . He regretted the fact that wearing masks had become the last point of contact in America’s seemingly endless culture wars, adding: “It is unfortunate that it has become a political problem, but it has been.”
If Aron intended for AMC to set aside the nation-shaking debate over when and how it is safe to reopen, it missed the mark. His comments were widely criticized and sparked online backlash with Twitter users calling #BoycottAMC. Studio executives were horrified in private, as were AMC employees and their competitors. They believed that Aron had changed plans to reposition theaters, a reopening that had been in progress for months, potentially jeopardizing billions of dollars in ticket sales. Other rivals, like Alamo Drafthouse, saw an opportunity, quickly declaring that their theaters would require masks and receiving praise on social media in the process.
Admittedly, the exhibition sector quickly switched to damage control. Since then, AMC and Regal have changed course and will require all their guests to wear masks when multiplexes are reopened starting next month, though Cinemark has not revised its stance. But the public dispute over the use of masks in confined spaces interrupted the broader message about whether or not it is safe to return to the cinema. In parts of the country that are most advanced in their reopening plans, such as Florida and Arizona, coronavirus cases are increasing rapidly.
“It just shows that trying to restart this engine in the middle of a pandemic is not a good idea because nobody knows what’s coming in the future,” said Jeff Bock, box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations.
He praised theater chains for quickly relying on their stance to require masks, but wondered if it altered public confidence. “How do you make people feel safe now at AMC or Regal when flip-flop so fast? It becomes a slippery slope, ”she said.
Movie theater owners follow a particularly sensitive line when it comes to masks. For one thing, his business is based on the notion of escapism, distracting customers from the troubles of the outside world with superhero adventures or extravagances fueled by special effects. A litany of regulations could serve to remind these viewers that any public activity is a risky proposition when there is a highly contagious virus that is still making its way across the country. They also need sales at the stalls to justify turning the lights back on, and eating snacks and sipping soft drinks contradicts the purpose of wearing a face mask.
“That’s trap 22 of all this,” Bock said. “There is no way to force masks when you sell concessions. If one or two people don’t use them, nobody could be. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s a security facade. “
However, the problem is that chains like AMC and Regal are widespread, with outposts in the red and blue states. They have to walk a tightrope between making people feel safe and alienating customers in more rural and socially conservative areas, where, as Aron pointed out, wearing a mask has become a political statement.
And those are just the big chains. Smaller theaters in communities where coronavirus has remained a distant problem would prefer to adopt a non-intervention approach when monitoring customer behavior. Jeff Logan, the owner of a small theater chain in South Dakota, says the masked mandates are not a “one size fits all” solution. He points out that his theaters are located in a more rural part of the country, one that has not seen an outbreak like the great metropolises.
“The national networks are caught in a situation where they are receiving pressure from people in the worst affected areas, understandably,” said Logan. “I am in a state with no capacity restrictions or requirements to wear masks. They don’t see it from the point of view of an area where there has not been an outbreak. “
Logan argues that theaters have come under closer scrutiny than other venues that host patrons in larger settings, such as restaurants.
“Any particular attention given to a theater is not warranted,” he said. “Most theaters have a 50% capacity anyway, and may even be distant beyond that. They all look forward and don’t interact or talk, so they don’t throw germs in the air. “
Maybe theaters are receiving more scrutiny than other sectors of the economy, but Aron’s comments are partly to blame for injecting theaters amid a fight between those Americans who believe that masks are an essential tool for staying healthy and those who hold that restrictions are a violation of personal liberties, damn medical science.
In the process, a campaign was derailed to remind people how much they missed the community experience of going to the movies and became an illustration of how divided the United States is in an era of plague and politicization.