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Movie theaters, COVID-19, and the capitalist approach to reopening

Downtown Burbank's AMC Theater.
Downtown Burbank's AMC Theater. (Image credit: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images)

Those of you who picked August 2020 in your “Movie Theater Reopening” pools, reap those rewards. Megaplex chains are welcoming patrons back into auditoriums once again, but maybe they shouldn’t be. I say that not because I have a personal vendetta against moviegoing culture or secretly hold a majority stake in every streaming platform. America never took the pandemic seriously, yet wants to keep pace with every other country’s reopen because “we have to get back to normal.”

Other nations get to see Christopher Nolan’s Tenet because the United States’ reported COVID-19 cases, compared to the world’s, look like an upward spike that levels out, spikes even higher, then downslopes like a ski resort’s bunny hill. Officials were worried about COVID-19’s second wave as of months ago, but the reality is, we never even exited the first surge. Hollywood is hurting, theater chains are even worse, which is, plainly, a sad byproduct of social distancing. 

AMC Theatres, Cinemark, Regal, and other emporiums are now reopening their doors under the CinemaSafe program in an attempt to survive. Minimized crowds, required masks, bountiful hand-washing stations next to liquid butter dispensers - safeguards are being put in place that are recognized, acknowledged, and applauded. What’s forgotten is how rushed reopenings also have consequences. The University of Alabama has already reported 560+ positive COVID cases in its first week since reopening its doors.

With theaters actively serving attendees for, what, a week? Two weeks? Companies like Solstice Studios’ and directors like Josh Boone’s baseless reassurances that “your worries are invalid” are ghoulish at best, inhumane at worst. It gives off the appearance that they'll say anything to drive sales.

Let’s start with the production company behind Unhinged, the aforementioned Solstice Studios, first revealing these celebratory “badges” for anyone “brave” enough to see their road rage thriller in cinemas. “I Saw Unhinged In A F*!#king Theater!” That’s the “Unhinged” version as the movie’s Twitter account tweeted out, proudly making movie theater attendance a toxic game of “weak vs. strong,” not “informed decision making vs. rushed abandon.” The optics of their stunt drew plenty of negative attention online, thus attaining the hype I’m sure vile marketing execs so hoped to exploit.

Then it got worse.

On August 24th, entertainment journalists received an email with the following subject line: “97% of Moviegoers Recommend Seeing a Movie in Theaters!” Some theatergoers were polled via a “PostTrak Survey Conducted by ComScore,” in person, and reported they were happy with the precautions in place, which is good! Those attending theaters should feel safe, and if these patrons are, this is a positive outcome. We still don’t know, though, if it’s safe to return to theaters. Just that immediate appearances reflected cleanliness.

“[This is] great news and confirms that movie theaters are not only back but have a promising future.” That’s Mark Gill, President and CEO of Solstice Studios, making a claim he can’t support because there’s not enough data to prove that theaters won’t close after weeks of being opened. “Some 57% of the respondents stated their top motivation for going to the movie theater was a desire to socialize and return to normal,” which proves how over half the people polled were just bored of the pandemic and decided “normal” is now. The curated information these smiley faces are feeding consumers is “everything is safe,” and that’s precisely what that 57% want to hear.

In a piece for Vulture, being updated periodically, Dr. Robert Lahita seems more optimistic as long as theater chains uphold the standards issued in place by CinemaSafe. As of now, he states that eating concession stand food is just as dangerous as a buffet and poses the most risk, but as long as staff enforce mask-wearing, and guests are sitting “at least two rows apart,” the theatergoing experience should be “relatively safe.” Of course, Lahita simultaneously notes how reopenings can quickly impact a second wave, how 70% of those infected are non-symptomatic (unknowledgeable spreading), and how he’d still wait to reopen theaters.

“I would prolong the release of new movies until, say, the fall because there could be a resurgence of this virus in September, October when the temperatures change again in the Northeast. So if everybody’s going to the movies, it could spike reinfection rates,” Dr. Lahita said.

So no, I will not be signing Alamo Drafthouse’s “you might die” waiver that fully acknowledges the pandemic is still in full swing, and by attending a Drafthouse, the business is not liable for any sickness you contract. No, I do not trust rules that are vaguely worded, like, “All HVAC systems should be in working order with increased ventilation wherever possible,” since the upgrades necessary are in short order. No, I do not expect patrons to be courteous enough to reset their masks after chomping popcorn or slurping drinks. Thus far, our nation's selfishness only allows me to imagine some poor employee getting verbally assaulted, droplets of saliva flying, by someone who thinks a mild inconvenience is somehow infringing on their rights. Did I mention that without masks, Dr. Lahita notes that you’re in danger within 30 feet of another patron?

With all these “precautions” in mind but not sustainably proven, Josh Boone’s comments, in an interview with Heroic Hollywood, soured my support of The New Mutants. Here are Mr. Boone’s thoughts on dashing out to a theater so you can finally behold his long, LONG delayed X-Men horror movie:

“I do think people should be going to the movies. If they can go to a house party with 700 people without masks on, they can put on a mask and go to a movie and maybe get their rocks off in a more productive way. But I think it brings people together, even if they’re socially distanced. And I think that as long as they’re following the rules they’re supposed to be following, it’s safer than an airplane or a restaurant.”

(As of July 10th, movie theaters were considered high-risk and more dangerous than airplanes.)

It’s this exact kind of “eh, people gonna people” mentality, this grossly dismissive tone about an ever-serious pandemic, that will keep us right in this first wave that the US has never escaped. Also, can we talk about the recklessness behind encouraging those who party with “700 people without masks” to attend movie theaters afterward? The kind of people who throw maskless parties that authorities have attempted to prevent because of their pandemic consequences? The cavalier nature in which we approach 170K+ deaths so far in the US, downplaying the yet unforeseen ramifications of reopening movie theaters, is elitist and moronic and downright evil from a humanitarian point of view. 

There’s a difference between a movie opening theaters as an additional option for those who want it vs.coercing moviegoers into being guinea pigs for the sake of box office profits. We don’t know if this is the right or wrong move yet, but no one seems to be showing caution over that fact. My mentions are full of, “where’s your data, why shouldn’t theaters reopen,” replies from egg avatars who call my fears “panic,” and you know what? I don’t have that condemning feedback. Yet. We do have drive-ins, though, and other means of safe movie watching. Shouldn’t they be the current focus?

That's my whole point. Because that same argumentative types who make ridiculous proclamations without any merit, like, “you can perform surgery in a Drafthouse they’re so clean,” aren’t thinking about when regulations relax because underpaid workers are being trusted to keep patrons safe. The same workers who, in turn, must trust corporations to keep them safe (we’ve all worked those jobs, we know they're not). Or anything else that we can’t predict as of yet because the new “normal” isn’t the same normal so many people want to sprint back into without impediments. These actions above intend to save an industry that’s dying, but not because it’s ready to come back. Because, by faults starting at a governmental level, industries need to reopen or they’ll go extinct. Forced to pay full rents with 30% capacity theaters like that mathematical equation somehow works out alright in the end.

Lost in all this are the ushers, concession servers, and managers who must work in a public space that risks their own health. Struggling citizens who are once again dependent on their paychecks because, surprise, a $1,200 stimulus bonus wasn’t enough to cover expenses over the pandemic’s almost six-month duration (as of now). There was never any rent relief despite nationwide furloughs, firings, and unemployment once corporations saw their profitability plummet, so now everyday people must reenter the workforce no matter the conditions (closed air, public interaction) not out of desire, but out of necessity. To boot, people are already noting instances where online ticket purchasing apps aren’t showing proper seat blockages (hopefully fixed). Is the vigilant crusade towards normalcy worth another’s life, over a movie? It’s the same person-to-person professional problems restaurant servers and heads of house face, and honestly, there are still plenty of issues there as well.

Capitalism doesn't have the consumer in mind. By leaning into this new marketing campaign, Solstice Studios is implying that it values your life at a whopping $20 (or so, depending on local ticket prices). Their “I Saw Unhinged In A Theater” campaign preys upon the masses who'll fall susceptible to something as ridiculous as the idea that their toughness is reliant on testing a deadly virus to see a film. The graphics imply some machismo code of honor, but Solstice Studios must know what its campaign can do, and who it'll put at risk. By leaning into it, by only telling you the bits of data that work in their favor, all it says is that none of it matters because movies are back, baby!

I don’t have a definitive answer to, “Is it safe to go back to a movie theater?” But, that right there, plus no reliable vaccine, is my counterpoint and the problem today’s moviegoers must now face. Watch at your own risk, but let’s not be brainwashed by noble assurances from companies that, through their reactions to our new COVID existence, prove they only care about how far your dollar can stretch.