However, due to a 50-person capacity limit for all indoor public buildings, only smaller independent theatres are getting their projectors back up and running, for the time being.
That includes The Westdale Theatre and Playhouse Cinema, two independent single-screen movie houses in Hamilton that were required to shut down viewings and find new ways of operating during the pandemic.
Dan Fournier, general manager of the Westdale, said the pandemic hit about a month after the theatre celebrated its first anniversary of reopening under new ownership.
“On March 18, everything came to a crashing halt,” said Fournier.
“We did an over $3-million renovation to the building. We operated for a year … And then we ran into three months of absolutely zero income coming in.”
He said the community stepped up during that time, donating some proceeds to help The Westdale stay afloat while they offered free online programming, including virtual concerts and ‘book club’-type movie nights, to keep viewers interested.
Although the situation wasn’t exactly the same at the Playhouse on Sherman Avenue, co-owner Jacob Tutt said they also began offering online programming, as well as a ‘popcorn pickup’ service that helped bring some revenue in.
“The things that we were doing, the streaming and the popcorn pickup provided a marginal stream of income,” said Tutt. “But it hit us quite hard. Like many small businesses, the downtime hit us quite hard.”
When the provincial government announced that Hamilton could enter Stage 3 of reopening, it was a relief for both theatres.
The Playhouse has 277 seats, but the province has capped all indoor public spaces at a capacity limit of 50 people. Tutt said that’s down about 82 per cent compared to their normal capacity, but still better than nothing.
The theatre will also be offering private ‘bubble cinema’ screenings, which allows movie-goers to book the screen in advance for a party of up to 50 people.
Fournier said they’re ready to welcome back the audience too — also with physically distanced and assigned seating. The Westdale has a capacity 345 seats, but most of those have been taped off, with pairs of seats set at least two metres apart.
“We’ve gone to extremes with these protocols that we’re putting in place. We’re doing a little bit extra than maybe what we’d be actually required to do. But I think our customers will have a trust with us and they’ll feel safer because of the things that we’re doing.”
The 50-person capacity limit has been the sticking point that has kept the bigger chains, including Cineplex and Landmark Cinemas, from reopening their multi-screen theatres.
Executives with Cineplex have been urging the province’s health ministry to revise the limit and increase it to 50 people per auditorium, saying it doesn’t make economic sense to reopen otherwise.
While it’s not ideal for the large chains, that’s good news for the independent theatres like The Westdale and the Playhouse, which won’t face the same level of competition for the time being.
“They’re allowed to have 50 people in their building, I’m allowed to have 50 people in my building,” said Fournier. “Well, I only have one screen. They have 10 screens. I mean, that’s five people per screen. You can’t operate that way, right. And what are you going to do? You going to go to a Cineplex, they’re going to have one screen with one movie playing? You know, those types of buildings — you just can’t operate like that.”
There’s another big impact that the pandemic has had on how movie theatres will be operating in the short term, and that’s the availability of new movies.
Production across the movie industry has halted and major blockbusters like Tenet and Mulan have had their release dates repeatedly pushed back.
For The Westdale, which normally schedules its films out on a monthly basis, that’s transformed into seeing what’s available from week to week.
Fournier said that’s because movie studios are putting out various titles at discounted prices, but those are only being released on a weekly basis.
“If there’s a silver lining in everything, the studios — because of a lack of product — have made a lot of their repertoire catalogs available at some pretty good prices. Because they realize that we’re kind of stuck with limited seating, so they can’t just charge us the standard rate.”
For The Westdale’s opening weekend, they’ll have three films in the rotation — Breakfast At Tiffany’s, A Star Is Born (2018), and Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
Tutt said the Playhouse will also be airing some of the classics during the early days of reopening, as well as some independent and Canadian films that are still being released.
“There’ll be great opportunities to see films like Jaws and Back to the Future, or The Goonies,” said Tutt. “You know, some of our favorites on the big screen, again, maybe for the first time for a lot of people. So there’s lots that we can do to get our screentime filled in and get bums in seats.”
The Playhouse is kicking off their reopening with The Goonies, Do The Right Thing, and Blood Quantum, with movies like The Matrix, Jaws, and Back To The Future to come in the following days.
And while Hamilton’s mandatory mask bylaw is in effect in both theatres, movie-goers will still be able to purchase popcorn and drinks at the concession stand — you just have to wait until you’re sitting in your seat to start snacking.