Movie theatres begin raising curtain on summer season

B.C. indie chain reopens; Cineplex and arthouse venues take wait-and-see approach

The Cinematheque in Vancouver is taking a cautious approach to the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions on B.C. movie theatres | Chung Chow

Rahim Manji can’t describe this month’s reopening of Hollywood 3 Cinemas PM Ltd. as “economically viable” just yet.

“We’re doing it more as a service,” said the owner of the B.C.-based independent theatre chain. “The same as theatres have done in the past, we’re not there to make a ton of money. Right now, we just need to pay the bills but we need a stepping stone to get to the next phase.

“What we’re trying to do is show that there is a possibility with guidelines.”

Four locations – Surrey, White Rock, Pitt Meadows and Duncan – reopened June 12, now outfitted with an array of Plexiglas barriers and employees wearing personal protective equipment.

Manji said the efforts emerged from his desire to bring about a new normalcy in the post-COVID-19 reality.

“We were one of the first theatres to close and we thought it was our moral obligation to close,” he said.

“I have no regrets about closing, but it has been three months and I feel that we can reopen.”

His auditoriums will admit a maximum of just 25 people, while concession stands have been moved into the theatres’ ticket box offices to minimize contact with audiences.

Patrons now hold up tickets printed with large numbers on them to be admitted on a staggered basis to allow for physical distancing into auditoriums (families are allowed to sit together).

But like other movie theatres, it appears that its typical summer high season will be marred by a lack of blockbuster releases as well as audiences’ health concerns.

While Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was pushed back two weeks from its original July release date, it seems unlikely the film will get the wide release the Dunkirk and The Dark Knightdirector typically demands.

Hollywood 3 will be screening previously released movies such as Trolls World Tour and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Cineplex Inc. spokeswoman Katie Rankin said in an email the country’s largest theatre chain doesn’t “have anything to share right now.”

At Vancouver-based film institute and arthouse theatre The Cinematheque, acting managing director Ben Shockey said his organization is deferring to guidelines outlined by the province in May that call for a potential July reopening of cinemas.

“We’re going to wait and see,” Shockey said. “We know that many of our regular returning customers … are eager to get back to the theatre, so we anticipate we will have some attendees from the time we reopen,” he said.

“We’re not sure what it’s going to look like in terms of broader public interest.”

Shockey said the jury’s still out on how the pandemic may permanently change cinephiles’ movie-going habits.

“We’ve done the initial numbers and we believe that if we are able to sell the number of tickets [needed to fill] screenings – we will be at a reduced capacity of fewer than 50 individuals for every screening – we believe that we will be able to continue to operate as we have in the past,” he said, adding The Cinematheque benefits from some public funding in its efforts to preserve film and media culture.

“Not all cinemas have that support and I imagine many of them are struggling with how to make it work.”

The Greater Vancouver International Film Festival Society, best known for operating the Vancity Theatre and the annual Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF), has been curating a selection of films to stream with 40% to 80% of rental fees going towards supporting the organization.

But no decision has been publicly announced about whether the fall festival will take place or will be staged instead as a virtual affair.

And while The Cinematheque does not rely on summer blockbusters to drive revenue, it’s had success over the years with August programming dedicated to film noir.

“We will be running that series, assuming that we are open, and we would love to have people come and check that out,” he said.

“Honestly, I think the biggest thing people can do to help out is return to the cinema when it reopens, and if they’re not comfortable, we of course understand that. But give it a try. We’re going to do everything we can to make people feel comfortable.” 

Updated June 15, 11:15 a.m.: Cineplex revealed June 15 it plans to reopen six theatres in Alberta on June 26, to be followed by the reopening of "many locations" throughout Canada on July 3 where permitted by government and health authorities.