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Movie theaters pressure Pritzker to loosen up and allow them to open at 50% capacity

Pritzker wants to keep movie theaters closed until Phase 4 of his reopening plan — June 26 at the earliest — and cap the number of movie patrons at 50 per theater.

Matt Gorbach, 16, begins to clean up the mess left from the hundreds of people that came through Showplace 16 for a free movie, bag of popcorn and drink.
A group representing Illinois theater owners proposes allowing movie theaters to reopen at 50% of normal seating capacity instead of 50 people per theater.
Sun-Times file photo

Movie theater owners are pressuring Gov. J.B. Pritzker to let them reopen to additional capacity this summer to boost ticket revenue and pave the way for major studios to release their traditional summer blockbusters.

Pritzker wants to keep movie theaters closed until Phase 4 of his reopening plan—June 26 at the earliest—and cap the number of movie patrons at 50 per theater.

Chris Johnson, president of the National Association of Theater Owners of Illinois, is not overly concerned about waiting until Phase 4. His major complaint is the 50-person cap.

Johnson called it unreasonably low at a time when a handful of theaters — like the Pickwick in Oak Park, the Tivoli in Downers Grove and Chicago’s Music Box — still seat 1,000 while remodeled theaters with recliners have “already taken out two-thirds of their seating.” In those theaters, social distancing can easily be maintained, he said.

“We want to have the capacity, rather than a hard 50, based on social distancing so that, if you have a bigger auditorium and you can seat groups six feet apart, whatever that number is would be allowed,” Johnson said.

“We’re not gonna be crowded until we get new product into the theater, and we can’t get new product into the theater until there’s theaters that are open [with capacity to justify it]. So, it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation.”

The theater association is proposing an alternative plan that would allow Illinois movie theaters to reopen at 50% of normal seating capacity with strict sanitation guidelines.

They include mandatory training for theater employees before returning to work, temperature checks before the start of each shift and wearing face masks at all times and disposable gloves during customer interactions.

The plan would also use empty seats and rows to maintain social distance between “viewing parties” and place 6-foot space markings in areas where movie patrons are lining up to buy tickets or refreshments. Customers would be encourage to buy their tickets online to “decrease contact opportunities.”

Illinois ranks third in the nation in movie ticket sales behind California and New York.

Noting the marketing engine for a major release takes several weeks to rev up, Johnson argued a delayed reopening of Illinois theaters could “prevent many more films from opening this summer, creating a ripple effect in the film and entertainment industry that will impact jobs and tax revenues across the nation for years to come.”

He’s particularly concerned about, “Tenet,” a film directed by Christopher Nolan that is scheduled to open July 17.

“Let’s say L.A., New York and Chicago aren’t open. Are they gonna open a film? ... It is a question they’ve put forth. They have charts and outreach to determine, ‘How much of the marketplace can we have, and what capacity do we have?’ Then, they can determine how much it makes sense to open,” Johnson said.

“The earlier theaters get open — even in a reduced capacity — signals to them that, ‘We should start releasing.’ And it is a little bit of a chain reaction. Once one major release opens, then another one and another one. Kind of in the same way when one movie [studio] took their release off schedule. Then, the next one did. We’re trying to do the opposite and get movies back on the calendar and have the ability to play new movies, rather than the throwback movies, which we will open with and reduce the crowds that come out.”

Pritzker’s cousin, Gigi, is a Hollywood movie producer.

The governor’s press secretary Jordan Abudayyeh defended the time line and seating capacity limits for Illinois movie theaters.

“Indoor movie theatres are slated to reopen with public health guidance in phase four. Theatres are higher risk environments because people spend significant amounts of time in close proximity,” Abudayyeh wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.

“Every phase of the Restore Illinois program is guided by the public health experts and listening to the experts has proven successful thus far. The administration looks forward to working with industry to ensure a safe reopening in a few weeks if health metrics indicate the state is ready.”