Coming attractions: Movie theaters can reopen Wednesday — but how many will?
For the past three months, the movie posters in front of Niantic Cinemas have looked as though time has stood still.
Among the posters have been one for the Ben Affleck flick “The Way Back,” released in early March, and the Harrison Ford adventure “The Call of the Wild,” out in late February.
Of course, time HAS stood still for movie theaters, which have been shuttered in Connecticut since March 16.
On Gov. Ned Lamont's orders, they can reopen on Wednesday — but how many will?
Niantic will invite in customers again starting Friday, but Madison Art Cinemas is going to remain closed for the immediate future.
Mystic Luxury Cinemas had serendipitously been gearing up for some renovations when the COVID closures began. Those renovations won’t, though, be done by Wednesday. The theater is planning to reopen in early July when Hollywood starts releasing its summer blockbusters.
Regal Cinemas hasn’t announced reopening dates for its multiplexes in Waterford and Stonington. Marquee Cinemas likewise hasn’t decided when its Westbrook site will be showing movies again. And AMC Entertainment, which operates the multiplex in Lisbon, has said it expects to reopen theaters globally in July.
Niantic Cinemas: Open for business Friday
On Monday, Niantic Cinemas was all set to go in its new, COVID-era iteration.
Every other row of seats was cordoned off with yellow "Caution" tape, as were all the aisle seats, all in an effort to help with social distancing.
In the lobby, boxes of masks and gloves for employees were piled on top of boxes of Clorox products. Plexiglass was suspended at the concession stand, to separate workers from customers.
General manager Joe Couillard noted that, instead of four screenings each day, Niantic Cinemas will host three to give workers enough time to clean and disinfect the auditoriums between showings. That includes fogging the room with a solution of Vital Oxide Disinfectant Cleaner and water, and scrubbing surfaces such as armrests, handrails and door handles with Clorox Clean-up.
Everyone in the theater has to wear a face mask but can remove the mask when sitting in his or her seat. Restroom capacity is three people at one time. The bathrooms will be cleaned and sanitized after the shows begin and after they let out.
The air conditioning system now has increased airflow and has been upgraded with HEPA filters.
As for the movies themselves, Hollywood isn’t releasing its first new summer flicks until mid-July. Consequently, Niantic will be screening some older films between now and then, Couillard said. The starting line-up: "Knives Out," "Just Mercy," the original "Jurassic Park," "Trolls World Tour" and "The Goonies." Niantic originally hoped to reopen Wednesday but couldn't get movies to play until Friday, according to Couillard.
He said Niantic Cinemas is opening now, before the summer blockbusters, so "people can see what the precautions are. ... They will have a good idea of how we're operating and what we're doing."
He said he's been getting a lot of questions from the public "not so much about the precautions but 'When are you going to open? Can't wait to get back to the movies.'"
Mystic Luxury Cinemas: Renovations before reopening
Mystic Luxury Cinemas won’t be opening Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean things aren’t hopping inside the venue. Last week, the floors in three of the four auditoriums had been ripped out. The concrete floors had been jackhammered, creating trenches for electrical conduit. The cinemas’ red seats had been removed, with some stored in the lobby, and an example of the new seats to come was sitting in a hallway.
“Fortunately, we had just started our renovation project before this (COVID-enforced closure), so in some ways it works out pretty good because it gave us more time to do it,” said William Dougherty, co-owner of Mystic Luxury Cinemas. “When the theater reopens, it may be quiet, but we're still going to have people who are going to come in here, and they are going to have a story to tell.”
One story they might pass on to other movie fans: The existing seats are being replaced by luxury electric reclining seats — with heating pads in them.
They will be black seats with cherry tables, but one of the more salient facts in this coronavirus world is that each row has to be placed 6 feet apart simply because a patron will need that much space when reclining as much as possible in these chairs. To allow the additional space these recliners need, the Mystic Luxury Cinemas is reducing its seating capacity by about 15 percent.
Another renovation point: All of the theater’s four auditoriums are upgrading their sound systems. One of the auditoriums, Dougherty noted, will have 12 more speakers than it had before.
Dougherty said the goal is to reopen the theater the first week of July, but no date has been set.
“Here's the major issue, which we (cinemas) are all going to find. As you know, we don’t own our product. We own the Milk Duds, we don't own the product to get you to buy the Milk Duds. So the next big film to be released is Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet.’ That’s coming out on July 17. There are a few smaller independents before then but nothing major. So for us to rush to get it open beforehand doesn’t make sense,” Dougherty said.
(The theater will, though, be offering a drive-in outside on June 26 and 27, featuring “Mamma Mia!” and “Remember the Titans.”)
When Mystic Luxury Cinemas does reopen its doors, all the expected precautions will be in place, from partitions at concession stands to hand sanitizers throughout the building.
In addition, Mystic Luxury Cinemas will move to a computer program where customers have to reserve seating. If, say, two people are coming to a movie together, they go online and reserve two seats. The program will automatically make the seats right next to them unavailable for purchase, so no one can sit there.
Dougherty expects that attendance will be lower at first, as people ease back into the world.
“I believe it’ll be a slow process back,” he said. “We are hopeful for, say, Thanksgiving and Christmas to get back to that normal.”
Madison Art Cinemas: Staying closed for now
Arnold Gorlick, who owns Madison Art Cinemas, said he is not opening the theater on Wednesday and doesn’t know when that might happen.
Gorlick, who is 72 and has been in the business for 50 years, said, “Things were going on in the movie business that were changing it dramatically a year ago which were challenging for art houses, let’s say, or small independent theaters. ... I was already heading into the COVID-19 virus dispirited about the nature of the movies.”
Those challenges include the rapid rise of streaming and the increasing difficulty of attracting crowds for foreign-language movies.
Gorlick said he’d like to think he would open before there’s a coronavirus vaccine, “but in my heart of hearts, I don’t see how movie theaters can do any significant business until there’s a vaccine. … Let’s say any movie I wanted was available to me. I can’t imagine who would want to sit in a movie theater — even if you fog in between, with recirculating air, knowing that the coronavirus hitchhikes on vapor droplets.”
He believes that people will, though, eventually want to have the movie-theater experience again.
Madison Art Cinemas has been getting plenty of support from customers.
“I can't overstate to you the amount of love and approval that has come my way and still comes my way — people buying gift cards and I see they’re not gifts, they are sending them to themselves. Almost uniformly, they are saying, ‘We are buying this gift card to support your gem of a theater and the wonderful work that you do.’ Every one of them gets a handwritten note back from me,” Gorlick said.
With all the challenges to the theater, both COVID-related and not, Gorlick said, "I'm trying to hang in there as long as possible. I have one strategy I can't speak on right now, but I'm trying to hang in there as long as possible."
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