Mark Gill, a veteran Hollywood executive who’s now president and CEO of new film distributor Solstice Studios, knows opening his company’s first movie during a pandemic is “definitely a gamble.”
“You don’t get into the movie business if you’re not interested in risk,” Gill said in an interview this week.
Gill, whose company is releasing the Russell Crowe revenge thriller “Unhinged” in theaters nationwide this weekend, was talking about the financial risk of bankrolling a movie and hoping the box office receipts will cover the costs.
Movie lovers will contemplate another risk this weekend: Whether it’s safe to go back into theaters while COVID-19 is still spreading across the country.
This weekend, “Unhinged” and Roadside Attractions’ young-adult drama “Words on Bathroom Walls” will be the first releases to open widely in theaters in the United States since March, when the first cases of COVID-19 prompted a shutdown of public spaces, entertainment venues and sports leagues.
They will be followed on Aug. 28 by the Marvel-inspired “The New Mutants” and, in some markets, the Charles Dickens adaptation “The Personal History of David Copperfield.” On Sept. 4 comes the U.S. release of director Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited thriller “Tenet.”
National theater chains also are opening up big this weekend. Most of the Cinemark theaters in Utah will be open Friday, as will the Regal Theatres’ one Utah location in Taylorsville. They join a bunch of theaters — a dozen of the Utah-based Megaplex Theatres, the two Brewvies Cinema Pubs, three Cinemark locations, and the independent Scera and Water Gardens theaters in Utah County — that have been open, some for weeks, mostly playing classic movies.
The industry is eager to get people into the theaters. But the question remains: Should people go?
Health experts weigh in
Ultimately, said Utah’s state epidemiologist, Dr. Angela Dunn, the choice is a personal one.
“Individuals need to determine for themselves whether they are comfortable visiting theaters or not,” Dunn said, responding to an email question.
If someone chooses to go, Dunn said, “they should make sure they wear a mask, wash their hands frequently, and maintain a safe physical distance from one another when possible. Of course, if you are sick, you should stay home and away from others.”
Other public health experts advise against a night at the movies.
Dr. Anne W. Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of UCLA’s Center for Global and Immigrant Health, told the movie website The A.V. Club this week that “short of renting out an entire theater, which is obviously not an option for most of us, there is no scenario in which going to a movie theater is a good idea.”
“It’s just about the last thing I’d do right now,” Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a physician and epidemiologist, and host of the “America Dissected” podcast, also told The A.V. Club.
Most of Utah is covered by the “yellow” category of restrictions from the Utah Department of Health. Under UDOH’s “yellow” guidelines, movie theaters and similar venues can fill each seat in an auditorium if there are less than 3,000 people, everyone wears a mask, and the venue operator keeps a seating record (which, with people using credit carts to buy reserved seats, is pretty much automatic). Social distancing of at least six feet is required in concession lines and other public areas.
Theaters that have already opened sometimes exceed those guidelines.
The Megaplex chain — which opened several locations in June in anticipation of July releases of “Tenet” and Disney’s “Mulan” (which will skip theaters and stream on Disney+, for a $30 fee, starting Sept. 4) — only sell seats in every other row. And when someone selects a seat, the theater’s ticketing software creates a three-seat buffer between that family group and anyone else buying a ticket.
“We had to put a lot of money and effort into the software,” said Blake Andersen, Megaplex’s president and CEO.
Megaplex, Andersen said, also sped up the process for ordering concessions by mobile app — and started selling movie popcorn curbside before theaters were reopened. The chain also has sold more than 1,000 private rental screenings, Andersen said.
Oldies and ‘virtual cinemas’
Without new movies to play, Andersen said, Megaplex has been pulling out the classics and popular older favorites. The chain also has shown titles from independent distributors, usually on the same weekend the movies were streaming as video-on-demand offerings.
Tori Baker, director of the nonprofit Salt Lake Film Society, said screening old movies has been an unexpected boon during the pandemic.
“There are viable stories that have been told through the art of cinema throughout history, and people will still appreciate if you bring them to your theater,” Baker said.
During their long reopening, Andersen said, his employees have been honing their sanitation techniques.
“We were able to reassure our guests that we knew what we were doing,” he said. “Now, they can feel as safe in our theaters as they do in their living rooms.”
The one place where few theater seats are sold is in Salt Lake City. The city itself is still in UDOH’s “orange” category, with moderate restrictions, so venues there are limited to only 20 people at a time.
For the past few weeks, the only theaters open within the Salt Lake City limits have been the Megaplex 12 at The Gateway and Brewvies Cinema Pub. Cinemark’s location in Sugar House was set to open Friday.
Salt Lake Film Society runs two arthouse venues, the Broadway Centre Cinemas and Tower Theatre, in the city, but Baker said there’s no reopening date set for those theaters.
In deciding on a date to reopen, Baker said, “patron and donor confidence matters, and I think health and safety matters.”
SLFS closed the Broadway and Tower on March 13, a Friday, Baker noted. Most of the other theaters in the Salt Lake Valley waited until after the weekend.
“There was so little information in that moment, about how fast it was spreading and where it was going,” Baker said, adding that her main concern then was “the safety of our employees — and if not the literal safety, their emotional well-being.”
Baker said other theaters in the Art House Convergence, a nationwide consortium of independent theaters that Salt Lake Film Society helped found, also closed that weekend. When the owners of a theater in Massachusetts said they wouldn’t reopen before June, other theater operators were shocked.
“People were, at that moment in time, thinking about 30 days,” Baker said, adding that she made an initial plan to close for five weeks. “My next jump was from that to five months,” she added.
During those months, SLFS has been adjusting to a stay-at-home audience.
The nonprofit was one of the first nationwide to develop its own “virtual cinema,” SLFS@Home, a portal to stream independent movies at video-on-demand rental prices — usually at the same price, or lower, as two tickets at the movies — with revenues split between the distributor and the theater.
“We created a technology that really defined virtual space,” Baker said, crediting SLFS’s chief technology officer, Miles Romney, with spearheading the effort.
The portal is built “to reinforce the behaviors and the ideas of the big-screen experience,” Baker said. “It opens a film on Friday. It closes a film on Thursday. … It’s not a streaming station; it’s not going to leave it there with endless options for you to see.”
The audience, Baker said, has maintained those habits. “Our audiences spike on Fridays and Saturdays, just like they would if they were going to the movies,” she said.
The portal has been such a success — in serving audiences, keeping them from wandering to other websites, maintaining cash flow and boosting fund-raising — that this week SLFS announced it had joined with 10 theaters nationwide to deploy the technology in other cities.
Also during the closure, Baker said, SLFS raised $200,000 to match a challenge grant from a group of anonymous donors. The nonprofit also has been reappraising the Tower’s extensive rental collection of DVDs and Blu-Rays. And the theaters are offering curbside concessions; the popcorn is a big seller, Baker said, “because there’s no microwave popcorn that ever gets close” to movie-theater popcorn.
Watching Megaplex and national chains reopen “is not really putting pressure on us,” Baker said. “We are really looking to make sure we have all our safety ducks in a row.”
Baker said she has been impressed as she has watched theaters nationwide — through the National Association of Theater Owners, or NATO, the industry’s trade organization — exchanging ideas about the best ways to open safely. “I’m seeing … the most sharing and open community, [that] wants and desires for a healthy industry to return,” she said. (NATO on Friday unveiled a campaign, CinemaSafe, to promote COVID-19 safety practices at theaters nationwide.)
The view from Hollywood
Director Armando Iannucci, whose “The Personal History of David Copperfield” will open in theaters Aug. 28, observed that many people got through the pandemic lockdown by watching movies at home.
“It will be sad if the thing that gets us through lockdown is the thing that isn’t there when we come out the other side,” Iannucci said in a virtual news conference to promote his film.
Iannucci — best known for such cynical political satires as “Veep,” “In the Loop” and “The Death of Stalin” — said that “for some people, [‘Copperfield'] will be the first film they see going back into the cinema. I’m just happy it’s out there. I’m glad it’s a film that has a positive message, and is about community and support and friendship and identity. I don’t know how I would have felt if it was ‘The Death of Stalin’ I was trying to sell.”
Gill said “Unhinged” will screen in the 44 states where theaters are open — which doesn’t include the country’s two biggest markets, New York and Los Angeles, where theaters are still closed.
Selling “Unhinged” has been a challenge, Gill said, because the three main ways one promotes a Hollywood thriller — trailers playing in theaters, advertising during sporting events, and having the stars make live appearances — have been largely unavailable.
“There’s no red carpet premiere, or Russell Crowe going around to be interviewed by people,” Gill said. “But what’s surprising is how well virtual interviews have worked. Russell’s sitting in Australia this whole time, and has talked to the whole world through there. And it’s worked out OK.”
For movie studios, this summer “has been like a horror movie,” said Gill, who has worked on more than 300 movies, as a producer and as a studio chief, running both Warner Independent Pictures and Miramax Films.
“You had to get so many planets to align,” Gill said. “You had to get public health departments to be comfortable opening theaters. You had to get movie theaters being ready to open. You had to get enough movie studios to say, yes, we’ll open some of our titles, so there would be a steady stream of movies for people to go see. Nobody wants to open a theater for just one movie, right?”
Andersen cited studies that found that between 75% and 80% of moviegoers would come back to theaters now.
Gill said his audience surveys have found the genre of movie fans wanted to see most, once they got back in the moviegoing habit, was the thriller.
“Audiences believe, when those are well done, that they really suck you in like nothing else, and allow you to get a little relief from the regular world and its problems,” Gill said.
With “Unhinged” hitting theaters, Gill said he’s now focusing on making Solstice’s next movie — which might be tough, with film production still on hold because of the pandemic.
“What we are seeing that’s particularly hilarious is [people saying], ‘Oh, this is a COVID-friendly production — you only need five people,’” Gill said. “That’s called a television movie. That’s not a movie that people are going to go to theaters for.”
Andersen said 2020 is “the summer everyone will remember that wasn’t for the movies. We missed Memorial Day, which is always a huge movie weekend. We missed the Fourth of July.”
But Andersen remains optimistic. “We were able to hang in there,” he said. “We’re looking forward to what we feel now will be a good fall and a fantastic Christmas.”
Theaters, opened and closed
Here is a list of indoor movie theaters along the Wasatch Front that have opened, and still plan to open, since the COVID-19 shutdown:
Brewvies Cinema Pub (Salt Lake City and Ogden)
Megaplex 12 at The Gateway (Salt Lake City)
Megaplex Valley Fair (West Valley City)
Megaplex Cottonwood (Holladay)
Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy)
Megaplex 20 at The District (South Jordan)
Cinemark Jordan Landing 24 (West Jordan)
Megaplex Legacy Crossing (Centerville)
Cinemark Tinseltown (Ogden)
Megaplex at The Junction (Ogden)
Megaplex Thanksgiving Point (Lehi)
Megaplex Geneva (Vineyard)
Cinemark University Mall (Orem)
Water Gardens Theatres (Pleasant Grove)
Century 16 (South Salt Lake City)
Century 16 Union Heights (Sandy)
Cinemark Sugar House (Salt Lake City)
Regal Crossroads (Taylorsville)
Cinemark Farmington at Station Park
Cinemark 16 (Provo)
Cinemark Spanish Fork
Cinemark American Fork
Opening Aug. 25
Opening Aug. 27
AMC West Jordan 12
AMC Layton Hills 9 (Layton)
Opening Aug. 28
Cinemark West Valley City
Cinemark Bountiful 8
Opening Sept. 3
AMC Provo 12
No date set
Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City)
Tower Theatre (Salt Lake City)
Cinemark Movies 9 (Sandy)