A return to the 'collective experience': How Ontario theatre owners are preparing to reopen

(Courtesy of Cineplex, Ted Rogers Hot Doc Theatre)

Theatres in Ontario have faced some of the longest industry closures in North America.

While some theatres were permitted to reopen in the fall of 2020, strict health restrictions altered the experience and within weeks, they were again forced to close by the onset of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema hasn’t hosted an audience since March 2020.

“It's fair to say that it's not been great,” Hot Docs Managing Director, Alan Black, told CTV News Toronto on Wednesday.

Black says the community theatre used to have a regular customer base of about 10,000 — all of which they have not seen in over a year.

To weather the storm, the theatre launched an online streaming platform dubbed ‘Hot Docs at Home’ but, while the endeavour has kept them afloat financially, it hasn’t recreated the authentic theatre experience, Black said.

“I'm really looking forward to being in a space with people and watching them laugh and cry and watching them have a collective experience again,” he continued.

Canada’s largest movie theatre chain is also eagerly awaiting the return of audiences.

Cineplex CEO Ellis Jacob told CTV News Toronto Wednesday that “it's been a very tough year.”

“Both from the perspective of the theatres being closed across the country and, then, we've also had the issue of keeping our team motivated, making sure we're all ready for the reopening,” Jacob said.

Jacob has questioned the prolonged closures, citing an October 2020 report from the Global Cinema Federation that claims movie theatres have not driven COVID-19 transmission globally.

“It's proven to be a safe activity, not only for Canadians but for people around the world,” Jacob said.

To ensure that safety, Cineplex has an extensive list of protocols in place to protect guests, which can be viewed on their website.

Masks will be provided to those without one, distancing protocols will be in place, and most interactions have been upgraded to be touchless, Jacob explained.

In addition to enhanced safety protocols, Jacob added that there are things about the movie-going experience that make it inherently safer than other indoor activities.

“You're all sitting in one direction, first off. The other thing is you have a reserved seat and there's lots of space around you and then obviously there's huge, high ceilings with state-of-the-art ventilation,” Jacob said.

With all of these protections in place, Jacob is looking forward to the province giving his theatres the green light, claiming that the experience will be “as effortless as possible.”

“Everybody I talk to can't wait to get back into a movie theatre. They say they're tired of looking at a movie on a small screen with all the distractions,” he said.

The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, on the other hand, won’t be rushing to be the first theatre open.

“We need guidance and we need guidelines obviously. We need enough time to ingest that information and figure out how to operationalize,” Black said.

Presently, theatres are scheduled to open in Step 3 of the province’s reopening plan, with capacity limits in place and health restrictions implemented, although the government has not yet provided specific direction to theatre owners and operators.

Black’s team will wait until they can fully understand and implement the mandated restrictions.

“You can't tell us the day before we open, ‘Here's how you've got to open’ because opening with fifty people and social distancing and a whole bunch of mandated restrictions is different than opening up as we were two years ago,” he said.

Despite hesitancy around a quick reopening, Black says his theatre has some great titles incoming.

“We have so many great films that we've wanted to show, but have been waiting until we reopen, so there'll be a huge list of really fantastic movies in the fall,” he said.

Jacob reiterated this sentiment, saying that “there were a lot of movies that were moved from 2020 into 2021 and then 2022” that will be released in Cineplex theatres later this year.

When asked what his theatre needs to bounce back to pre-pandemic popularity, Black’s request was simple.

“If people really want the cinematic experience to survive, the best way they can support, particularly their local cinemas or their favourite independent theatre, is just by going back.”