Is proof of vaccination the ticket for getting movie fans back in theaters?
As the delta variant of COVID-19 continues its run, how theater owners woo patrons in a politicized climate remains a cliffhanger question as Labor Day weekend brings out Marvel’s first Asian superhero epic, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
Already, city leaders in New York, San Francisco and New Orleans have proactively made vaccines a requirement for indoor activities that include movies. But some theater owners elsewhere have followed suit in an effort to keep patrons safe and business thriving.
“When we announced our requirement, I could tell it put a lot of people at ease,” says Brian Mendelssohn, owner of Row House Cinema in Pittsburgh, which reopened Friday after 18 months in the dark. Ticket sales jumped after the theater asked for proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test, he says.
That approach has support at the highest level of the industry. Last month, National Association of Theatre Owners President John Fithian caused a stir when he confirmed that his organization, which represents 35,000 screens in 50 states, would support mandatory vaccines for entry.
“In order for the exhibition industry to fully recover, we need more people to be vaccinated. It’s pure science,” Fithian told The Hollywood Reporter. “Working through how we implement it and how we deal with the economics are challenges, but we’re not going to oppose it, because people need to get vaccinated.”
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In late August, investors recognized the importance of vaccines to the multiplex, boosting the stock prices of three big chains just as the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to the Pfizer shot. Shares of AMC Entertainment, Cinemark and IMAX closed up 7% on the news.
Earlier in the month, AMC CEO Adam Aron told analysts on an earnings call that “vaccination increasing is very important for AMC and for the movie theater industry generally.”
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The financial byproduct of keeping patrons safe is unmistakable. A promising July saw the year’s top-grossing films to date, “Black Widow” and “F9: The Fast Saga,” bring in large crowds who spent big at concession counters, but crowds dropped off noticeably in August as concerns about delta grew.
The overall trend isn’t promising for theater owners. The latest data from entertainment polling firm National Research Group shows that “comfort” in going to the movies averaged 67% in August, down 11% from July.
The family movie outing also has taken a hit from delta. NRG data from last week revealed 58% of parents were “very or somewhat comfortable” taking their children to the movies, the lowest number in this category since late April.
For theater owners, “it was hard enough dealing with streaming as an adversary, and now this,” says Jeff Bock, senior media analyst at Exhibitor Relations. If more cities require vaccines for entry, “that suddenly becomes a political lighting rod that theaters then have to step into, leaving them between a rock and hard place, between keeping people safe and alienating some clientele.”
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The live music industry has been aggressive about mandating vaccines, the result being that massive gatherings such as the outdoor music festival Lollapalooza, which drew nearly 400,000 revelers, have unfolded without turning into viral storms. But there’s a big difference between such approaches for one-off events like concerts and high-traffic daily theater screenings.
Between the sheer logistics of checking vaccine cards, the broad array of state and local mandates, and the lack of super-spreader incidents in theaters, a blanket vaccine requirement for movie-goers is unlikely.
Rather, going to your local multiplex is most likely going to come down to personal choices about masks, your comfort with indoor events and the desire to see a film that might not be streaming for a while.
Theater owners across the nation tell USA TODAY that they hope to instill confidence in consumers mainly by adhering to local pandemic regulations while continuing deep cleaning regimes. Some owners noted that they are incentivizing, though not requiring, employees to get a shot. All steered clear of being pointedly for or against vaccines, instead stressing the relative safety of their venues.
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“We are likely one of the safest indoor environments you can be in,” says Rolando Rodriguez, CEO of Marcus Theatres, with 90 locations in 17 states from New York to North Dakota. “You’re not even talking. There are high ceilings. There’s great air flow. And we make sure our staff is healthy.”
Marcus Theatres offers employees paid time off to get the COVID-19 vaccine. In Texas, Santikos CEO Tim Handren went a step further and offered employees $75 to get the shot on company time. He had a 70% take rate.
“I felt good about that,” says Handren, who also serves as mayor of Boerne, a small town north of San Antonio, where his 10 theaters operate. That proactive approach stands in contrast to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent executive order that bans local government or state agencies from enacting vaccine or mask mandates. (Abbott tested positive for COVID-19 last month.)
Handren says roughly half the patrons at his theaters choose to wear masks, “but I can’t tell if they’re the vaccinated ones or the unvaccinated ones.”
In New York, Joseph Masher is working to revive a concept some of his theaters rolled out in the spring: vaccination clinics on-site, with even just the first of two shots being enough to get you admitted into the theater.
“We’re hoping that by using movie theaters as places of vaccinations, it’ll encourage the unvaccinated to think about their choices and take appropriate actions,” says Masher, chief operating officer of Bow Tie Cinemas – with 15 locations in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia and Colorado – and president of the National Association of Theatre Owners of New York.
The ongoing dance between movie studios and theater owners also plays into the drama.
Theater owners are pushing for blockbusters to be released this fall with no simultaneous streaming option. This year, Warner Bros. put its entire slate in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously, and Disney did likewise with “Black Widow” and “Cruella,” which were available on Disney at a premium price. But studio heads are worried if they release a movie at a time when there’s concern about gathering indoors, they’ll miss their box-office window.
Just this week, the much-anticipated sequel “Top Gun: Maverick” shifted to a 2022 release, leaving the latest James Bond installment, “No Time to Die,” as the biggest title set to arrive this October.
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‘We have a supply issue, not a demand issue’
Beyond the issue of health inside movie theaters is a much bigger question surrounding the future of Americans’ moviegoing pastime.
Hollywood is very aware that the pandemic has accelerated a tech-driven shift that has created a boom in episodic TV shows and a penchant for staying home to watch movies, both of which undermine the theater experience. Theater owners are confident COVID-19 is something moviegoers are willing to safely contend with in order to see new hits, and all they need to lure customers is a broad array of compelling movies that do not show up on phones, tablets and home theaters for at least a month.
“We have a supply issue, not a demand issue,” says Chris Johnson, CEO of Chicago-based Classic Cinemas, with 131 screens in Illinois and Wisconsin. “There’s a sense now that COVID-19 will be around for a long time in some form, and we are all learning to live with it and get back to what we love doing.”
Johnson says he’s willing to go with whatever rules are imposed, from masks to vaccines, so long as they are reasonable.
“If I have to ask my people to check a vaccine card against an ID for every person who walks in, that’s a lot of work when you’re trying to fill a theater in time for the show to start,” he says.
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Similarly, although mask mandates remain in effect in many theaters, enforcing such a rule can be difficult, especially for young employees approaching adults. “We’ve instructed our people to not get into fights, because that’s just not what going out to the movies is about,” Johnson says.
Where masks are mandated, employees do their best to enforce that rule, says Jeff Kaufman, senior vice president of film and marketing for Malco Theatres, with dozens of locations across Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and other states: “For all other theaters, masks and social distancing are strongly encouraged.”
Kaufman, like other owners, was buoyed by the strong performance of recent releases such as “Jungle Cruise,” “Free Guy” and “Space Jam,” and was optimistic that the “Marvel marketing machine behind ‘Shang-Chi’ ” would help fill theaters over the holiday weekend, regardless of the virus.
“Every home has a kitchen, yet restaurants proliferate,” he says. “There will never be a comparison between the big-screen experience and home TV.”
Neither COVID-19 nor overpriced popcorn is going to stop Pittsburgh film buff Scott Inghram from missing this weekend’s classic ‘50s double-header – the bawdy romp “Some Like It Hot” and noir thriller “The Night of the Hunter” – at the 84-seat Row House Cinema.
Armed with his vaccination card and a mask, he plans to happily queue up perhaps more than once this weekend, when the fare will also include the original 1954 “Godzilla” movie.
“I needed there to be some regulation to feel OK about coming,” says Inghram, 28, an administrative assistant at a local bank. “If it was a theater with no vaccine or mask mandate and more of a packed free-for-all, I’d be out on that.”
Row House owner Mendelssohn and his staff plotted this weekend’s reopening weeks ago, only to consider shelving it when delta took off. Instead, he decided to stick with his plan while requiring proof of health.
“We’re a night out, a good time, so we need to try and help people do the things that COVID-19 hasn’t allowed us to do,” he says.
And did anyone complain about his vaccine-mandate policy?
“Sure, I got a handful of negative comments,” he says.
Then Mendelssohn laughs, recalling the time he showed a once-banned 1966 movie about terrorism and national identity: “Honestly, I got way more blowback the time I decided to screen ‘The Battle of Algiers.'”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID vaccines and movie theaters: Do you need vaccination to go?