With a few exceptions, Asheville-area movie screens have been dark since mid-March under orders from Gov. Roy Cooper to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. But with the advent of Phase 3 on Oct. 2, North Carolina theaters were allowed to reopen at 30% capacity or 100 people — whichever is less — and with significant precautionary measures in place.
The Regal Biltmore Grande & RPX was the first such local establishment to resume business, doing so 30 minutes after Phase 3 went into effect with a 5:30 p.m. screening of Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited thriller Tenet. Customers entered an environment in which all employees were required to wear masks; tickets and concessions were sold via the Regal mobile app; fresh air intake and circulation were increased; and at least one empty recliner seat separated each group. Moviegoers were also required to wear a mask at all times — except when eating and drinking while seated in an auditorium — and employees monitored attendees throughout screenings to ensure that those regulations were being followed.
These policy changes and others adhere to guidelines set by the CinemaSafe program — commissioned by the National Association of Theatre Owners and incorporating nearly 400 companies in over 3,000 locations — that implement “expert-backed, industry-specific health and safety protocols.” The standards also comply with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ “Interim Guidance for Movie Theaters and Indoor Gaming,” which includes the aforementioned capacity restrictions specific to the state.
But days later, the new James Bond film, No Time to Die, was delayed from Nov. 25 to April 2, prompting the theater’s parent company, Cineworld, to temporarily close all Regal locations in the U.S. after the last screenings on Oct. 8. In a statement, the U.K.-based company sought to justify its decision by citing the continued closure of major U.S. markets, mainly New York City, and the lingering hesitancy of large studios to release new films to a reduced number of screens. Opening these blockbusters would almost certainly result in lower profits, which has prompted such highly anticipated features as Dune, Black Widow and Top Gun: Maverick to be pushed to 2021.
But Asheville’s other chain theaters, the AMC River Hills 10 and the Carolina Cinemark Asheville, reopened Oct. 9, joining their corporate peers across the country that have been operating since late August. And at least one of these companies is confident that it won’t suffer the same fate as Regal.
“Cinemark’s reopening plan was designed with multiple contingencies in place to ensure we are able to be nimble and react as needed to this ever-changing environment,” the company says in a statement. “We do not currently have plans to close our U.S. theaters and are continuing to align with demand, including reducing operating hours and days while we await new studio content to encourage theatrical moviegoing.”
On the local independent theater front, Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co. President Mike Rangel is delaying the reopening of his business’s Merrimon Avenue screening room and instead is focusing on outdoor movies at Rabbit Rabbit, his co-venture with The Orange Peel. And Leah Chang, manager/programmer of the Fine Arts Theatre, sent out a patron survey on Oct. 2 to gauge moviegoers’ thoughts on returning to the two-screen indoor cinema. The responses will play a major role in shaping when and how the theater reopens, along with consulting epidemiologists to determine whether resuming operations is indeed advisable.
“There seems to be so much that we are still learning about how the virus spreads,” Chang says. “I think that’s a question that everyone has to answer for themselves and their circumstances. Personally, I’d feel safe watching a not-too-lengthy film in a large auditorium with safety measures in place: masks required, HVAC upgrades, cleaning protocols, limited capacity and social distancing. I’d feel safest knowing the other folks at the screening and knowing that they would abide by all the rules, too.”
Rachel Graham, an assistant professor of epidemiology at UNC Chapel Hill, who typically went to the movies once or twice a month prior to the pandemic, is in no hurry to return.
“Even with regulations in place, you’re putting I don’t know how many people in a movie theater and you’re telling them to keep their masks on, but you’re giving them popcorn and Coke and you’re turning the lights off — so, the masks are coming off,” she says. “And it’s upwards of two hours in one place with people you don’t live with.”
While thorough studies on movie theaters’ risk factors during the pandemic have yet to be conducted, Graham references a model that National Geographic published in August, in which a classroom lecture provides the closest approximation. Being in that space for 2.5 hours — the runtime for Tenet — carries close to a 20% chance of contracting COVID-19, odds that may increase in certain screening rooms.
“If you consider the architecture of the movie theater, you’ve got stadium seating [with] people above each other,” Graham says. “The rows above are going to laugh and react, and their respiratory aerosols are going to fall on the row below them.”
In deciding whether to return to theaters, Graham encourages people to weigh the risks of getting a possibly lethal infection while seeing a movie on a big screen that will be viewable at home within a few months, if not sooner. She’s also in favor of drive-in movies as an intermediate solution to help satisfy moviegoing desires and is sympathetic to the financial losses that theaters are experiencing during the pandemic.
“But the risk right now without a vaccine, without an evenly disseminated treatment, is still extremely high,” she says. “The real key of it is if people were 100% compliant about mask-wearing and washing their hands, and about staying 6 feet apart, things like this would be a lot more viable. Compliance is going to be what hurts this in the long run.”
Downsize and survive
Grail Moviehouse owners Davida Horwitz and Steve White are well aware of the risks involved in reopening their theater and are employing social distancing and increased sanitation practices at their new temporary location at 17 Foundy St. in the River Arts District. The single-screen venue has a vaulted ceiling that’s around 35 feet tall at its peak, will seat up to 40 people at a time and is expected to open once its certificate of occupancy is granted, likely by the end of October. While readying the space, the Grail team has held pop-up screenings for up to 35 people at neighboring plēb urban winery — essentially test runs for the theater and its patrons, whose positive feedback has been encouraging.
“I think people are wary, but they also feel comfortable when they go in and see that we encourage mask use, spread people out and, at plēb especially, we’ve been opening up the garage doors and letting outside air in,” White says.
The new Grail spot has its own giant warehouse door, which will be opened throughout an hour break between screenings to circulate fresh air as long as weather allows. During that hour, spot cleaning and sanitation of restrooms and other surfaces will occur. Other measures that will be taken to reduce human interactions include having all ticketing online and not allowing waiting in the lobby.
Regarding the effectiveness of these steps, White says the National Association of Theatre Owners hired epidemiologists to advise them on the CinemaSafe program, and the organization has made persuasive arguments that movie theaters — large spaces where everyone faces the same direction and people aren’t passing by on a regular basis — are a more controlled environment than restaurants. Reports from peers in states where theaters have been open since August — including Chicago’s historic Music Box Theatre, where whole rows and seats are being blocked off to allow for proper distancing — are likewise heartening.
“They haven’t found cinemas to be a source of spreading [COVID-19],” Horwitz says. “[Independent theaters] took their time and didn’t rush to open.”
In addition to the above efforts, the Grail will host two drive-in screenings in front of its new location: Monty Python and the Holy Grail on Saturday, Oct. 17, and Army of Darkness on Saturday, Oct. 24. Along with the theater’s continuing Sofa Cinema digital offerings for home viewing, Horwitz and White hope that these developments will allow them to remain in business and eventually return to a multiscreen setup.
The restaurant exception
As a fully licensed restaurant, the Flat Rock Cinema was eligible to reopen with the implementation of Phase 2 on May 22. But rather than hurry back into business, co-owner Howard Molton waited a week to gauge the public’s reactions to restaurants reopening.
He was also, in his words, “aggressive on social media,” posting photos of the business’s inspection grade and tables being removed to allow for 6 feet of separation, and to show that he was taking the threat of COVID-19 seriously. Molton says that patron feedback was overwhelmingly positive, so the business opened at 40%-45% capacity instead of the allowed 50% for restaurants, largely due to the way the venue’s seating is arranged. He’s limited operations to Fridays-Sundays out of doubts that the theater could get enough business to sustain being open its usual six days, during which he’s screened independent films such as The Nest, starring Jude Law and Carrie Coon, and Never Too Late with James Cromwell. While blockbusters are being delayed, Molton feels that the pipeline of low-budget fare appears to be intact for the foreseeable future — perfect for a business where films are arguably a secondary attraction.
“It’s just coincidental that we have a movie screen. We’re more of a café. We don’t have servers that come in. [Customers] get food and their drinks and they go sit down at a table. It’s not stadium seating where you’ve got people packed in together. It’s a different concept,” Molton says. “In a two-hour period, the maximum we’ll have in there is 30-35 people. I challenge any restaurant in 2 1/2 hours to have less than that — and if they are, they probably aren’t going to be open very long.”
Flat Rock Cinema’s restaurant designation also means that face coverings are recommended but not required while visitors are seated, especially since many attendees are eating and/or drinking.
“Some people will sit without a mask, and some people will put on the mask,” Molton says. “We encourage them to wear it, but we can’t enforce it. It would be very disruptive in a movie to go around and tell everybody to put their mask on.”