Movies theaters ready to raise curtain

Sanitation plans for venues have been in place for months.
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Theaters are empty for now, but owners have plans in place for once the doors reopen. Courtesy GQT Movies

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) GQT Movies made a risky decision when it decided to close on a deal to purchase the Goodrich Quality Theater chain, which had a few locations in West Michigan, out of bankruptcy auction earlier this summer.

The purchase occurred during a time of ongoing uncertainty of when they and other theaters in the Lower Peninsula will reopen their doors for business and community entertainment. Movie theaters in Michigan were ordered to close by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in mid-March because of COVID-19 but there is no telling when they will reopen.

On Sept. 2, she reiterated her stance that theaters will remain closed.

“To say that we, the theater operating community, are disappointed would be an understatement,” said Matt McSparin, executive vice president administration and finance for GQT Movies. “We are unclear on what measures, plans and procedures the governor’s office would like us to follow since there has been no feedback about our plan and how they want us to reopen.”

When the time to reopen comes, McSparin said they will be ready.

“We are ready to get our theater open,” he said. “Unfortunately, our landscape has been deprived of entertainment. Live entertainment has been squashed and for our mental public health, we would like for a chance to be reopened.

“We find it disconcerting that other retail operations with equal or more risk to our operation are allowed to be open. If we don’t find a way to get open in a safe manner soon, the entire state of our industry in Michigan will be placed in peril.”

GQT Movies has 22 locations in the U.S., including 12 in Michigan. McSparin is a part of a slew of entertainment executives who would like to see their doors open, including Celebration Cinema. The cinema at Studio Park opened in October 2019 and its projected annual attendance was between 300,000 and 400,000 visitors.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and resultant business closures have come at a painful cost to the movie theater industry” said Emily Loeks, director of community affairs at Celebration Cinema. “This is true generally for arts and performance venues, but we face unique challenges. New movie releases are synchronized nationally and even internationally. Hollywood studios have been hesitant to release a major new movie, which involves years of investment, unless a high percentage of theaters across the country have the ability to open their doors and offer shows to the public. Our industry needs to act as a synchronized whole.”

Michigan is one of only seven states that has not reopened movie theaters or announced a reopening date, according to Loeks. She said her theater has been in limited talks with Whitmer about reopening.

“This is important for retaining our capacity to ‘reboot’ and for our long-term health as a company,” she said. “We’ve been investing in West Michigan communities for more than 75 years, and we’d like to see through to the other side of this and serve the community with movies, music and entertainment experiences for 75 more.”

The uncertainty is what’s frustrating theater executives.

“The communication coming from the governor’s office has not specifically addressed movie theaters,” Loeks said. “It has been more broadly focused on phases of reopening, and the prevalence of spread in different regions of the state. That said, we believe that movie theaters have been terribly miscategorized when lumped with large stadiums of thousands of people that move in more congested ways to gather around a single event. Movie theaters are being treated the same as large concert venues with seating for tens of thousands of patrons when in reality, we are much smaller, often only seating a few hundred people at a time.

“We have not heard any specific reasons that should separate movie theater auditoriums from other phase four businesses like restaurants and venues of a similar scale. Most of our theater auditoriums, with capacity reduced to space groups, will seat between 20 and 100 people. The ceilings are high, and the air filtration and circulation are excellent. Beyond that, folks are seated, facing in the same direction and generally not speaking with others outside of their group while a movie is showing.”

While it has been difficult for representatives from GQT Movies and Celebration Cinema to sway the governor’s decision to reopen theaters in the Lower Peninsula, those businesses are prepared to open once the governor gives them the green light.

According to GQT Movies, there will be signs at the front of its facilities highlighting its requirements, which includes capacity restrictions for each auditorium for social distancing — three-seat spacing between groups. There will be social distancing decals on the floor at the concession and box office lines, shields at customer interface areas, sanitizing stations and an electrostatic sanitizing machine to sanitize broad areas such as seats. Staff will be given extra time between movies to sanitize the auditoriums.

Employees and guests will be required to wear a mask or a face shield, sanitize and wash their hands.

Similar to GQT Movies’ plan, Celebration Cinema guests and employees will be required to wear a mask and practice social distance in and outside the auditorium. Employees will be required to take in COVID-19 safety trainings, have wellness and temperature checks at the start of each shift, frequent sanitization of surfaces and daily disinfecting of the facilities. There also will be a chief clean and safety monitor on duty and guests are encouraged to purchase tickets online. Convenience fees are temporarily waived.

“I would add that our industry has adopted a set of cleaning and safety standards, branded as ‘CinemaSafe’ that many theater circuits (300+) have voluntarily signed on to,” Loeks said. “These exceed, in many cases, standards set by the CDC and local health departments.”

Celebration Cinema hasn’t been totally closed during the pandemic, either. It’s been finding creative ways to deliver outdoor movies to the public, including Sunset Cinema at Studio Park, a Pop Up Drive In at Celebration Cinema North and Getty Drive In in Muskegon.

“Michigan is unique in the degree to which it’s theater operators are local Michigan businesses,” Loeks said. “Celebration Cinema has ripple effects in our economy as we contract and collaborate with dozens of other Michigan businesses, from breweries to accounting firms to web developers. We are deeply rooted and relationally rooted here. This has an impact on the social fiber of our communities.”

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