Ottawa moviegoers might feel like they’re heading “Back to the Future” as movie theatres reopen with new coronavirus precautions in place this weekend.
But local operators say that future will reflect a “new normal” as the cinemas welcome back crowds under Ontario’s Stage 3 reopening plan.
The 1985 Michael J. Fox-Christopher Lloyd time-travel hit is among the slate of classic films and recent releases airing at Ottawa’s Mayfair Theatre this weekend, one of the first cinemas in the city to reopen following nearly four months of shutdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Also opening this weekend are two Ciné Starz locations in the Orléans Town Centre and the St. Laurent Shopping Centre.
Meanwhile, both the Cineplex and Landmark multiplex chains are holding off on their provincewide relaunches. Ottawa’s ByTowne Cinema said earlier this week it plans to reopen by July 24.
Both the Mayfair and Ciné Starz will offer seating in every other row, with three seats of buffer room between patrons with each row.
Ontario’s Stage 3 reopening allows a maximum of 50 people indoors, which means operators must cap the number of tickets up for sale for each screening.
Patrons and staff will have to wear masks, in keeping with the city’s recently passed bylaw mandating face coverings in enclosed public spaces, though the regulations allow masks to be temporarily removed to eat and drink.
“It’s all these new normal rules for the time being,” says the Mayfair Theatre’s Josh Stafford.
Both Stafford and Bruce Gurberg, owner of the Ciné Starz chain, tell Global News they think members of the public might be apprehensive about returning to the movies while the risk of the coronavirus remains in the city, but that patrons will feel safer once they step into the theatre and get a sense of the safety precautions in place.
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“If they try us out, I’m sure they’ll feel very safe once they’re there,” Gurberg says.
As provinces across Canada begin to reopen amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, experts have advised the public to approach movie theatres and other indoor environments with caution as the risk of transmission increases in enclosed locations.
Ciné Starz already reopened in Montreal three weeks ago, where Gurberg says the feedback has been positive.
“I was happy to see that people are absolutely going to movies. They’re feeling confident and we’ve had a very easy going three weeks so far,” he says, noting he has similar expectations for Ottawa audiences.
Stafford says he expects “well-attended” showings this weekend, before adding he doesn’t want to “jinx” it. He says the Mayfair, which alternates between new releases, classics and cult favourites, often struggles to gauge attendance expectations even when the pandemic isn’t a factor.
“It’s really hard to say. Social media has tricked us before, but there is an onslaught of goodwill and praise and people saying they’re looking forward to coming back,” he says.
Stafford notes that while Friday’s Stage 3 reopening news caught the theatre by surprise, by next week the Mayfair is hoping to implement advanced ticketing for the first time to give the audiences a better heads up on when shows are sold out before heading down to Old Ottawa South.
Neither Gurberg or Stafford are expecting issues with compliance from moviegoers.
Stafford says the Mayfair has “great patrons” who he believes will understand the new rules of doing business in the pandemic; Gurberg’s experience in Montreal gives him similar sentiments, though he notes mall security is ready to escort disruptive audience members out as needed.
The pandemic struck at inopportune times for both the Mayfair and Ciné Starz.
For Ciné Starz, the chain had just taken over the former Imagine Cinemas location at the St. Laurent Shopping Centre at the end of February before it was forced to close down a few weeks later as the coronavirus came to Ottawa.
Gurberg says the company took the opportunity to renovate the complex. The result is a fresh set of chairs in the theatre that have never been sat in — a potential boon for apprehensive audiences.
The Mayfair, on the other hand, was in the midst of a record run of the Oscar-winning film “Parasite”. The cinema had screened the South Korean-made film for 17-consecutive weeks before the pandemic forced the curtains closed, shattering the previous eight-week-run record.
Given that audiences were still turning out to see the film in high numbers when the pandemic hit, Stafford teases “Parasite” might even return for an 18th week depending how the reopening goes.
But while the cinema’s neighbours across the street such as Black Squirrel Books and House of Targ were able to keep cash flowing by selling books, merchandise and take-away food, the Mayfair had to get creative to bring money in during the pandemic.
Stafford says the cinema turned to a previous campaign it had run to sell tags on its seats in an effort to fundraise for a new projector.
While he was expecting to sell off a handful of dedications again, the Mayfair ended up selling out every seat in the theatre — literally.
“It was just a cavalcade of good will,” Stafford says. The campaign proved so successful the theatre ended up selling off tags for the balconies, projectors and the piano to give patrons an opportunity to make their mark in the nearly nine-decade-old institution.
He says Mayfair die-hards turned out to purchase seats with stories of meeting their future spouse at the theatre, of taking their kids to the movies for the first time, or of their late grandmother who worked for the cinema in her youth.
In part thanks to the fundraiser, Stafford says he’s not worried about the sustainability of the Mayfair in the near future, but he remains cautious about the pandemic’s lingering influence on cinema going forward.
“All we can do is hope for the best and take these little baby steps towards normalcy.”