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Cineplex urges Ontario government to make changes to theatre occupancy limits

FILE: Cineplex Odeon Theater at Yonge and Eglinton in Toronto on Monday December 16, 2019.
FILE: Cineplex Odeon Theater at Yonge and Eglinton in Toronto on Monday December 16, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim

TORONTO — Executives at Cineplex Inc. are asking the Ontario government to loosen restrictions over how many people can occupy its cinemas at a single time.

Dan McGrath, chief operating officer of the Canadian movie theatre chain, says the company has been in conversations with the province’s health ministry in hopes of revising limits that allow up to 50 moviegoers inside a single auditorium.

Ontario’s Stage 3 reopening guidelines, introduced last week, cap a movie theatre’s occupancy of 50 guests in the building, regardless of how many screens it operates.

McGrath says the existing capacity rules don’t make economic sense for the chain.

“Unless we can get 50 people per auditorium, we’d be operating at a loss,” he said on Wednesday.

“We’d like to see higher.”

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Brooke Timpson, a spokeswoman for the Ontario government, said the province will “continue to work with our stakeholders, public health officials and other levels of government to ensure the safe reopening of our province,” but she said the rule of 50 people for indoor venues is still in effect.

“Businesses and sectors not able to open or viably operate due to Stage 3 restrictions are invited to visit Ontario.ca/reopen to submit a reopening proposal,” Timpson added in an email.

The number of people allowed inside a movie theatre varies by province, depending on the impact of COVID-19 and the reopening measures introduced by local health authorities.

Read more: Cineplex won’t open movie theatres Friday as Ontario regions move into Stage 3

In Nova Scotia, movie theatres can operate at 50 per cent of the auditorium’s capacity for up to 200 people with physical distancing in effect, while Saskatchewan movie screens are capped at 30 per cent.

Cineplex has reopened 35 locations in provinces where distancing measures are less restrictive. The company introduced new seating plans to meet guidelines and boosted its cleaning procedures, but its Ontario theatres remain closed.

Landmark Cinemas and Imagine Cinemas, two other chains that operate a number of multiplexes, have kept their theatres shut in the province as well.

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Some single-screen, independent theatres have reopened in Ontario over the past week, including cinemas in Kingston and Waterloo.

Many of those theatres are showing older titles, such as “Jurassic Park” and “The Goonies,” or more recent films released before the shutdown, including “Emma” and “The Invisible Man.”

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The urgency around theatres reopening has been minimal this summer, partly because Hollywood continues to push its biggest new films down the calendar as the U.S. struggles with the spread of the virus.

In Canada, “Target Number One,” a legal thriller starring Josh Hartnett as former Globe and Mail journalist Victor Malarek, was a rare new film to open in select cities.

“The combination of the number of people that we are seeing come now, along with the wage subsidy program, certainly makes this sustainable for us, at least for the next couple of months,” McGrath said.

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“As long as we keep getting a few — even if they’re smaller films — coming in, new films along with the catalogue product, we’re able to sustain that and operate profitably.”

Read more: Screenings resume at B.C. movie theatres with new COVID-19 precautions

Cineplex has faced a number of hurdles in recent months as it contended with a full closure of its theatres amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The company was originally set to be purchased by Cineworld Group PLC for $2.8 billion earlier this year, but the U.K.-based chain walked away from the agreement because of alleged material adverse effects _ or unforeseen circumstances that affected the value of the deal _ and breaches of contract.

Cineplex has denied the claims and says Cineworld is backing away from the deal because of buyer’s remorse.

Last week, Cineplex laid off more than 130 employees as it looks towards an uncertain slate of movie releases in the coming months.