The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is it safe? In the movie theater business, the question is how much to promise older audiences.

As omicron ebbs, exhibitors grapple with communicating vs. over-communicating

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In January, Paula Bailey faced a decision. She was eager to see “Flee,” an animated documentary about an Afghan refugee that had been receiving rave reviews and would be nominated for three Oscars. But with the omicron variant of the coronavirus still surging, she had second thoughts. Realizing that the film was available both in theaters and via streaming, she decided to stay home and watch it there.

It’s not that Bailey, 72, has jettisoned the theatrical experience entirely. “If there’s a movie I’m dying to see, I’m not going to wait,” she said recently from her home in Fairfax. In December, she and her husband went to see “West Side Story” at the Reston Bow Tie Cinemas. (Bailey’s favorite theater these days is Fairfax’s Angelika Mosaic because of its auditoriums, the largest of which can seat 295.) She also saw “Parallel Mothers,” “C’mon, C’mon” and “Belfast” on the big screen.

But, having habitually gone out to see a movie once a week before the coronavirus pandemic, Bailey admits that her habits have changed. Although she still craves the theatrical experience and acknowledges the importance of getting out of the house and socializing, she appreciates the convenience of home viewing. “I like that I have options,” she says, somewhat apologetically.

Bailey personifies a debate rippling through the movie business: As American life begins to inch back to normalcy, how best to convince still-wary filmgoers that it’s okay to go back to bricks-and-mortar theaters?

Throughout the pandemic, now entering its third year, cinemas have been engaged in a delicate dance, trying to communicate that they’re safe while respecting their customers’ reasons for staying away. In the midst of an unprecedented downturn, many of them invested in expensive HVAC improvements, slashing their seating capacities up to 50 percent to accommodate distancing. Now, with more people shedding masks and with states and localities easing restrictions, it could be even trickier to convince the skeptical.

The challenge has consumed Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. He has a vested interest in people venturing back out: His company — which recently released Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers,” “Jockey” and “Compartment No. 6” — has adamantly resisted streaming during the pandemic, embracing the theatrical experience instead. “The theater opens up possibilities for the financial windows that will last for the next seven years,” he observes, adding that Sony Classics’ library of about 500 films has performed well on streaming services precisely because their initial run in theaters established them as singular, important events “as opposed to something that pops up because of the algorithm.”

But Bernard’s concerns go beyond his own movies. “The simplest thing the movie industry can say is that it’s safer to go to a movie theater than it is to go to a bar or a restaurant,” Bernard says. “And no one has said that. I cannot believe the movie theater community hasn’t delivered this message.”

With few exceptions, caution has reigned in the exhibition community. In a December interview with the Boxoffice Podcast, Laemmle Theaters president Greg Laemmle said, “It’s going to take some time to acquire an audience, to reacquaint them with moviegoing,” adding later, “Maybe we just need to wait till it passes.”

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The audience in question is a specific one: older filmgoers, especially those over 45. Although young people have largely embraced going back to see movies in multiplexes — witness the overwhelming success of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” as well as “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” — their elders have been far less enthusiastic about gathering indoors with strangers for up to three hours. According to a 2019 market study by the Motion Picture Association, viewers above age 40 accounted for about 40 percent of frequent filmgoers in pre-pandemic times; getting them back is crucial for the industry’s survival.

It’s not difficult to explain why that cohort has been more hesitant: Parents don’t want to risk transmitting the virus to their young, unvaccinated children and grandchildren. Elderly filmgoers are also more likely to have health issues that make them vulnerable to serious illness and long-haul symptoms, or they live with or take care of someone who is similarly compromised. They might understandably prioritize other activities — such as medical appointments, grocery shopping or going to the gym — when it comes to their exposure budget.

The questions are just as germane to the experts most people look to for advice. “Do we want to see ‘Spider-Man’ on the big screen or a kids’ movie at home? We have conversations like this all the time in our house,” says Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the mother of two young children. “With most of the things we see, which tend to be Disney movies, it’s more comfortable to see them at home. We don’t need the big screen experience, and we can pause it to go to the bathroom.”

According to Nuzzo, for people who are fully vaccinated, watching a movie in a theater while keeping a tightfitting N95 mask on the entire time (i.e. no sipping soda or nibbling popcorn) is among the safest group indoor activities they can have. “The question is, do they feel like doing that, or would they rather see something at home?” she says.

Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University, experienced that debate firsthand over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. She had taken her vaccinated 7- and 9-year-old children to see “Encanto” in a Chicago theater in December and felt “really comfortable.” But when they considered seeing “Sing 2” in theaters with her 75-year-old mother in Atlanta, they decided to skip it. “In Chicago and some other large Democratic cities that have indoor vaccine mandates, I’d feel really comfortable doing those things,” Carnethon says. “Less so in Georgia, where the rates of vaccination are a whole lot lower and there are scant policies and enforcement of them in place.”

For Leana Wen, a physician and public health professor at George Washington University, the decision of whether to go back to theaters comes down to three factors: individual medical circumstances, risk tolerance and how highly one values going out to see a movie. “For some people, going to the movies was not something they particularly enjoyed, and therefore it’s something they don’t miss,” she says. “On the other hand, there are some individuals for whom it may be close to an essential activity, it’s such an important part of life.”

It’s the population in the middle — mostly middle-aged people who liked going to movies before the pandemic but haven’t rushed back to theaters — that are essential for theaters to survive. According to a study conducted last fall by the research and marketing firms the Quorum, Cultique and Fanthropology, one-third of the participants (mostly young men) had already enthusiastically gone back to seeing movies in theaters. Thirteen percent, called the “lost forevers,” were likely to never come back. That left more than half of the respondents fitting the description of “infrequent,” “reluctant” or “hopeful” — a group that can be lured back to in-person moviegoing with the right combination of pricing, theater upgrades and safety measures, including vaccination mandates.

Of course, many theaters around the country have instituted those measures, as well as mask requirements, improvements to their ventilation systems and limiting seating capacity. The question the industry faces is how aggressively to promote those policies. In 2020, the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) unveiled its CinemaSafe program, designed to inform customers about the precautions their local venues had put in place. With cases on the rise and vaccines not yet available, the campaign largely went unheard.

Theater owners face a similar cost-benefit quandary now. “The question is whether a big PR push and the expenditure involved with that would actually be effective when you’re in the midst of people just being nervous about things,” says NATO vice president and chief communications officer Patrick Corcoran, who adds that a full-blown communications effort also risks backfiring by making an unwelcome connection. “One [downside] would be to make people go, ‘Oh yeah, theaters and covid.’ You’d be making the association explicit, even though our strongest message is that there have been no outbreaks traced to movie theaters.”

As important as messaging around health and safety is, Corcoran insists, it’s the movies themselves that determine who comes back and why. “When we have movies people are interested in, and a regular cadence of movies coming into the theater with marketing support, people will feel more comfortable,” he says. “Part of it is time, but the largest part, frankly, is offering audiences something they want to see. People don’t go to theaters to sit in comfy chairs and eat concessions. People go to watch movies.”

With the exception of such titles as “No Time to Die” and Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” precious few movies aimed at adult filmgoers have been released, and those that were released haven’t qualified as must-sees, or at least not must-see-nows. (The most recent example, Kenneth Branagh’s “Death on the Nile,” grossed just under $13 million in the United States during its opening weekend, around half of what Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” made in 2017.) Meanwhile, it’s been left up to individual theaters and chains to decide how vocal to be about safety measures.

Stephanie Silverman, executive director of Nashville’s Belcourt Theatre, has made them a key part of the theater’s marketing strategy, emphasizing mask requirements and decreased seating capacity in local NPR ads, the theater’s website and email blasts that go out to as many as 50,000 patrons.

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Because Belcourt’s policies are stricter than state and local measures (which are virtually nonexistent), Silverman was initially apologetic about them, she says. “But then we ran through two variants. We’ve talked about it enough that people now know to expect it, and are choosing to come to the Belcourt because of it instead of wanting to push back against it. When we flipped the switch and said, ‘This is a thing we should be touting instead of apologizing for,’ that was really helpful.” (The Marcus Theatres chain, which owns venues throughout the Midwest, has also made safety a marketing tool, with a “What to expect” banner at the top of its homepage. Larger chains, like AMC and Regal, have not made safety measures a primary focus on their websites.)

Silverman’s experience points to what might be an industry-wide trend in coming months, as society adjusts to a new phase of covid. Wen notes that movie theaters can be a relatively safe choice when it comes to indoor activities because people can choose to wear a high-quality N95 or KN95 mask the entire time and not eat or drink during a screening. In fact, theaters could make it easier for extremely cautious customers by creating more alternatives, she says. “Perhaps they could provide an option for mask-on-the-entire-time screenings, with no food or drink allowed at all.”

Nuzzo would like to think such accommodations are here to stay. “There’s going to be a period of time when we have to acknowledge that we all have different vulnerabilities to this virus,” she says, adding that theaters might consider making no-concession, mask-only screenings permanently available, just as they offer special screenings for customers who are hearing-impaired or are on the neurological and sensory spectrum.

“I would love to see more options for people, even if the numbers are dropping,” Nuzzo says. Even when the virus recedes, she observes, “there are still going to be small numbers of people who are not as well-protected as others. Giving them options is important too, rather than demanding they drop their fears. One of the risks is that we forget about those people, and we confine them to their homes, and they don’t get to participate fully in life. I hope we can find options so that people can see movies and fully engage in social activities with the level of safety that they need.”