Boston-area movie theaters, all closed since mid-March due to COVID-19, have approached Phase 3 of the state’s coronavirus reopening plan with a mix of caution and confusion.
Cinemas, along with gyms, casinos, museums, and outdoor performance venues, were allowed to open starting July 6. But only one movie theater in the Boston area, the West Newton Cinema, has done so thus far.
The two premiere local independent theaters, the Brattle and the Coolidge Corner theaters, have delayed reopening indefinitely. Both theaters have put safety protocols in place, such as plexiglass shields at concession counters and reconfigured seating to meet the 6-foot social-distance requirements. But the state’s cap of just 25 people in a theater auditorium at one time and the restriction on selling food at concession stands have made reopening costs prohibitive.
“We can’t even turn on the air conditioning and pay for it with just 25 people,” said Katherine Tallman, the Coolidge’s executive director. “There is no rush to open. We’ll do so only when everything is in place. [The Baker] administration has been fantastic and we are grateful but they are moving fast. It’s not a one-size-fits-all.”
The state’s guideline of “No Food Service for Indoor Venues during Step 1 of Phase 3,” combined with the 25-person cap, is a major obstacle, especially for a single-screen theater like the Brattle.
“It is not worth reopening if we can’t sell food,” said Ned Hinkle, the Brattle’s creative director.
Hinkle and Tallman in mid-July sent a letter to Governor Charlie Baker expressing their concerns about the guidelines. They said they didn’t expect a reply, given all that the state is dealing with around the unprecedented pandemic response. They had not received one as of July 22.
“We question the underlying assumptions that led to this cap, particularly within the context of guidelines set forth for houses of worship, indoor dining, casinos and gyms,” Hinkle and Tallman wrote, adding that the current 25-person cap would limit the 225-seat Brattle to 11 percent of its capacity. The limit of 50 patrons in the Coolidge’s two auditoriums represents about 7 percent of its total capacity.
“We cannot generate sufficient revenue at this level,” they wrote. “Further, the bulk of our programming is first-run feature films, and film distributors will not offer film to us under these conditions.”
Both the Coolidge and Brattle, as nonprofits, have been sustained by a loyal donor base. “We’ve generated a lot in donations and memberships,” Tallman said. Both pay rent for their buildings and have other substantial overhead/staff costs. Both also received a Paycheck Protection Program loan. Their letter to Baker stated: “To the extent we apply these proceeds toward allowable expenses, particularly payroll, up to 100 percent of the loan proceeds will be forgiven.”
On July 21, the Brattle, Coolidge, and Somerville theaters joined the social media campaign #saveyourcinema asking the public to petition legislators to back government-relief programs for movie theaters.
The Somerville Theatre, long a community anchor in Davis Square, and the Capitol Theater, in Arlington, will not reopen for the foreseeable future, said Ian Judge, operations director.
“It looks like the handful of us left are likely to be furloughed as there is no path to reopening with these restrictions in place. The family that owns the buildings remain fully committed to keeping these theaters alive, but it’ll have to wait until things beyond our control make that possible,” said Judge in an e-mail. “With the restrictions currently in place; namely no indoor food sales and a cap of 25 patrons per auditorium, it is not financially feasible for us to reopen at this time. . . . Hopefully the governor is open to tweaking his plans or at least letting all of us know when exactly he might be open to that. Until then we are all just in the dark without much idea on how it would be worth opening.”
The sole canary in the coal mine is the six-screen West Newton Cinema, which reopened on July 17. “We are rolling it out slowly,” with all safety protocols in place, said owner David Bramante. He said he remains “up in the air” about whether he can sell popcorn, soda, and candy. The local board of health told Bramante that it was permissible, he said, but the state regulations prohibit it.
So far there have been “a small number” of patrons at the theater, Bramante said. “People were glad to come back.”
The other piece of the puzzle is the dearth of new movie releases. Most first-run cinemas, including the Coolidge, were planning to reopen with Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated “Tenet,” but its release has again been postponed. The West Newton Cinema is showing the new documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble” and classic films including, “Casablanca” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
All Boston-area chain cinemas, including Landmark Theatres, Showplace Icon, AMC, and Showcase Cinemas remain closed. AMC Boston Common has listed on its website a reopening date of July 30, no doubt tied to the tentpole of “Tenet,” an event that’s been tabled indefinitely.