Saskatchewan movie theatres avoid being ‘handcuffed’ by COVID-19 restriction on food, drinks

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WATCH: Potential COVID-19 measures in Saskatchewan had some theatre owners thinking the show could not go on much longer – Dec 1, 2020

A regime of COVID-19 restrictions announced last week left a co-owner of a Humboldt movie theatre with mixed emotions — none of them of good.

Mike Yager couldn’t understand why Saskatchewan’s public health order allowed movie theatres to sell concession items like popcorn and drinks, but barred customers from eating inside the auditorium during a movie.

Read more: New Saskatchewan public health measures for restaurants, sports teams

The co-owner of Reel Attractions recalled “a little bit of disbelief that we would be handcuffed or hogtied so badly in, already, a tough time.”

There was also “a little bit of anger.”

Generally, concessions are the main source of revenue for movie theatres big and small. Admission typically pays for movie licensing.

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“If you don’t have concessions for a movie theatre, you might as well close the doors and shut the lifts off because that’s where the money is,” Yager said.

The theatre had been preparing for the national release of The Croods: A New Age — a rare Blockbuster movie in one of the worst years for new releases in recent history.

Yager planned to go ahead with The Croods opening under the restrictions while others, like The Roxy Theatre in Saskatoon, announced plans to close.

Tom Hutchinson, president of the Roxy’s parent company Magic Lantern Theatres, told Global News he felt the new restrictions were unsafe. The Roxy’s lobby is smaller and has a lower ceiling than newer megaplexes.

Read more: Death toll in Saskatchewan rises by 4 while 237 recover from coronavirus

“There could be up to 60 people cramming popcorn into their faces as fast as they possibly can because they’re late for their movie,” Hutchinson said.

Since reopening during the pandemic, movie theatres have long been required to maintain physical distancing in auditoriums. With groups seated apart and facing forward, Hutchinson considered it safer than the province’s newly announced restrictions.

Just before the measures were about to take effect last Friday, provincial officials backtracked on the decision and amended the public health order. Currently, moviegoers can consume food and drinks during a movie as long as they are seated and a minimum of two metres from the nearest household.

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Requests to explain the restriction and amendment were not returned by deadline by Saskatchewan’s health ministry and provincial business response team.

Yager and Hutchinson don’t think provincial officials wanted to do deliberate harm to their businesses. Rather, both said movie theatres were incorrectly grouped in with casinos, live theatre and performance venues “that have completely different operational criteria,” as Hutchinson described it.

Read more: Saskatchewan WCB has received 232 COVID-19 claims from employees since start of pandemic

Movie theatres in Saskatchewan are still bound by a 30 person capacity, which is significantly lower than the previous 150.

Cinema Twin in Swift Current announced plans to close on Friday, before learning of the government’s reversal five to ten minutes later.

Co-owner Kathy Pratt was relieved. Her theatre’s monthly revenue is down 90 per cent during the pandemic. Reel Attractions’ revenue is down by more than 80 percent since COVID-19’s emergence.

“Our industry has taken huge hits,” Pratt said.

Larger theatres are facing challenges too. Landmark Cinemas Canada CEO Bill Walker told Global News his company “is not a profit-seeking operation right now.”

“What we’re doing is staying open to keep people employed, keep continuity in our business and keep movie-going top of mind,” said Walker, who is also a board member with the Movie Theatre Association of Canada.

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While movie theatres have largely not been a vector for coronavirus transmission, Walker said the business can’t be truly successful again without huge films on the screen.

He pointed to delayed movies like Marvel’s Black Widow, Top Gun: Maverick and the James Bond sequel No Time to Die.

“We know that there’s a ton of content waiting and ready to be released in theatres.”

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