No One Should Go to a Movie Theater When They Reopen

     June 19, 2020

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[Update: In response to the outcry, AMC has announced they will now require customers to wear masks. Their press release doesn’t mention how they plan to reconcile this with selling concessions, so we’ll see how they follow through. Regal and Cinemark are still sticking with their mask-optional policy. Original editorial follows below.]

[2nd update: Regal has now announced that they will also require masks.]

In the past several weeks, the three main theater chains—AMC, Regal, and Cinemark—have announced their plans for reopening next month, and their plans fall embarrassingly short of what’s needed to keep patrons safe. They’ve promised reduced capacity, frequent disinfecting, limited concessions, social distancing in auditoriums on the honor code, and wearing masks, but only for employees. If you’re a patron, a mask is encouraged, but not required.

AMC CEO Adam Aron tells Variety, “We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy. “We thought it might be counterproductive if we forced mask wearing on those people who believe strongly that it is not necessary,” said Aron. “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.”

First off, no one cares what you do personally, Adam. Second, you kind of give the game away if your big push to safely reopen is mentioning political considerations and not what public health experts recommend. A recent study tells us that if 80% of people wore masks, COVID-19 infections would drop dramatically. But since some people are stubborn idiots and their money still spends, we have to put everyone at risk.

And that’s the issue here: Any movie theater that doesn’t make wearing masks mandatory is asking that the customer (or “guest” as the PR would like to refer to audience members) assume all the risks so that these businesses can resume making money. Your safety is not their concern. If it were, they would find ways that may make some people upset but still served health concerns. The lack of requiring masks is the giveaway that the research these exhibitors have done isn’t into public health, but into focus groups. They tested to see if people would come back if wearing a mask was required, enough people said, “No, I would not come back,” and masks became optional. If that seems like an unfair assumption, tell me why masks—which we know to be proven effective in combating this public health crisis—are not mandatory at every theater.

It should be noted that theaters make most of their money from concession sales. Those are sales they don’t have to share with the studios, and even with a reduced menu, they could still sell popcorn, soda, and candy. But if you’re being enticed to eat, then you’re also being enticed not to wear a mask, and if wearing a mask was mandatory, it would seriously cut into the concession sales that theaters are banking on in order to make money. Sure, it’s a difficult position: if you force people to wear masks, you won’t make money, and you’ll have to shut down. But if you don’t force people to wear masks, you could seriously jeopardize the health of your customers. But instead of being up front and saying, “Masks are optional because we need to sell Milk Duds,” the theater chains are putting on a show to pretend that they take this crisis seriously.

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Image via Regal

The COVID-19 pandemic is arguably the most serious threat many of us have faced in our lifetime. It has killed over 100,000 Americans and is on track to have killed 200,000 by October. There are no signs that the virus is waning, that we’re close to achieving a vaccine or herd immunity, and our self-quarantine was wasted because the federal government wasn’t interested in putting a test-and-trace program into practice. We’re right back where we were three months ago except we’re three months poorer.

The major chains’ decision to reopen isn’t being dictated because the facts have changed. Their decision to reopen is because they can’t afford to stay closed. If they stay closed, they’re still paying rent on the properties they own and salaries for employees they haven’t furloughed. I understand that theater employees such as ticket takers, and managers are also being squeezed. If we lived in a sane country, the government would shore up these businesses and employees to weather this storm, but we live in America, which doesn’t solve problems anymore. If AMC, Regal, and Cinemark do not reopen soon, they believe they will go out of business. And they may be right. But that doesn’t mean the end of theaters.

There are thousands of movie theaters across this country. If AMC, Regal, and Cinemark go out of business, those screens don’t disappear. They become an asset that someone else can buy, and as long as Hollywood exists, there will eventually be product for those screens. This could be the end of the companies AMC, Cineworld (who owns Regal), and Cinemark, but it’s not the end of movie theaters. The future could look very different with perhaps Netflix, Amazon, or Disney buying up theaters, and while that’s not a bright outlook, we shouldn’t labor under the belief that it’s AMC, Regal, and Cinemark or nothing. Jobs lost under AMC, Regal, and Cinemark could come back under new ownership because they’re part of the human infrastructure that makes allows these businesses to operate.

But the major theater chains are doing what they’ve always done, which is abdicate all responsibility so they can shove overpriced junk food down your gullet while offering a suboptimal screening experience. From the people who brought you, “Is Cell Phone Use Really That Bad?” and “We Don’t Know How to Project Films” comes “Masks, Like Your Health, Are Not Our Concern.” I’m not really surprised that a major business doesn’t care about the health of its consumers, but I’m a little shocked that AMC, Regal, and Cinemark have been so publicly blasé about it.

When you read their plans (click on the respective links for what AMC, Regal, and Cinemark have offered), you see that this does not meet the crisis at hand if the crisis you’re considering is COVID-19. But that’s not the crisis they’re worried about. The crisis they’re worried about is bankruptcy. Maybe wearing masks isn’t enforceable, but they’re not even going to try. Maybe they’re not interested in trying because of logistics, or maybe it’s because if you’re forced to wear a mask you won’t buy overpriced popcorn and soda. But saying people will social distance in theaters on the honor system and they’ll have a teenager who’s paid minimum wage do a really good job disinfecting the theater would be laughable if the risks weren’t so dire.

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Image via Regal

We know that the risk of contracting COVID-19 is higher in “tight, indoor” spaces with poor airflow, and the risk increases when you’re stuck in that space for a long duration. Theaters are a high-risk area for contracting coronavirus, and the only way to meet that risk is with rigorous preventative measures like masks and social distancing that’s enforced by the theater. But AMC, Regal, and Cinemark are abdicating that responsibility and doing just enough so that if you get sick and want to sue them, they can say they put some safety measures into place and buyer beware.

I love the theater-going experience. The thought of only seeing movies at home on streaming saddens me deeply. Watching movies in a theater is a wondrous experience in part because it’s communal. For a movie-lover, that space is sacred because when it’s treated properly, it can transport you in a way that no other medium can. But you can’t respect that space unless you respect the people in it, and these new guidelines are a blatant show of disrespect. There is no movie, no matter how hyped or how cinematic, that is worth risking your health. As of June 18, 2020, COVID-19 has killed 120,000 Americans. It has infected 2.23 million. Some recover, but they may need to be on dialysis for the rest of their lives or they get a debilitating stroke. It is not to be taken lightly, and anyone who doesn’t treat this pandemic with the seriousness it demands does not deserve your business. The fact that AMC, Regal, and Cinemark have faltered on the issue of masks shows why they deserve to go out of business.

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