As he gets ready to open his movie theaters across Illinois and Wisconsin, Chris Johnson faces a dilemma.

Johnson is eager to emphasize all the measures he and his staff are taking to protect patrons from covid-19. But he’s also wary of overdoing medical talk and scaring off potential customers.

“You don’t want to make all the health stuff too obvious,” said Johnson, the chief executive of Classic Cinemas, which operates 120 screens at 15 theaters. “Because if it feels like they’re checking in for a flight, they aren’t going to come. But you have to let them know somehow. So it’s really hard.”

Movie theaters are encountering a slew of challenges as they lurch toward reopening after a three-month shutdown, including well-documented obstacles such as a lack of new movies and capacity legally capped as low as 25 percent.

But those who run theaters say an even bigger challenge is emerging: reading, and relieving, the worries of a fragile customer base.

All businesses, of course, must figure out how to put customers at ease during the pandemic. But movie theaters face a distinct strain of the problem. More than airlines, retail and even restaurants, movie theaters thrive on a sense of refuge, peddling the joy of leaving reality at the door to plunge into imaginary new worlds. That’s tough to do when employees are handing out masks, enforcing seat distances and scanning for pallid complexions.

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In this April 29, 2020 file photo, a message on the ticket window at the AMC Burbank 16 movie theaters complex informs potential customers that it is currently closed in Burbank, Calif. AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File

A business that normally thrives on selling high-margin snacks to enthusiastic audiences is now thrust into the role of social psychologist. Movie-theater managers in the summer of 2020 must throw open their doors without appearing to let just anyone in; they need to reassure customers it’s safe to share a dark room with dozens of strangers but not freak them out with clinicalities.

“It really is a very strange position theaters find themselves in,” said Bruce Nash, an expert in theatrical releasing who runs the box-office website The Numbers. “They have to react to a million different experiences, a million different personalities. And then try to win over one person at a time.”

Movie theaters have been at the center of the debate about reopening, and for good reason. Theatrical box office reached $11.4 billion in the U.S. last year, the second-highest total ever, powering entertainment giant Disney to massive revenue and bolstering the bottom lines of more than a dozen other firms.

But equally important, movie theaters could serve as a key tool to sew together the frayed bonds of public life. With hundreds of millions of Americans isolated in their homes for nearly four months – and with politics fragmenting them even further – movie theaters represent a hope, however flawed, of bringing people together for a common experience.

This is increasingly true worldwide. Before the pandemic, the interconnectedness of American and global culture had arguably never been stronger, as filmgoers in 2019 spent a record $42.5 billion worldwide on tickets to Hollywood films while a movie of and from South Korea, “Parasite,” took American pop culture and the Oscars by storm.

Hollywood studios have been very cautious in their belief in customers embracing theaters again. Warner Bros., which has been the boldest in betting on a comeback, announced this month that it would take one chip off the table and move its release of “Wonder Woman 1984” from August to October. It also pushed back “Tenet,” its epic action-thriller from Christopher Nolan, by two weeks to July 31.

But many theaters are still planning to reopen this summer, with smaller movies such as the action-thriller “Unhinged,” the Sundance hit “Palm Springs” and the romantic comedy “The Broken Hearts Gallery” all coming out in the first weeks of July.

AMC, the country’s largest chain, said two weeks ago that it will open nearly all theaters next month to stem losses that climbed to $2.2 billion in the most recent quarter.

And even theaters that don’t open this summer will need to restart their business eventually – this fall, studios are planning to release such major titles as the new James Bond movie “No Time to Die,” the Marvel franchise film “Black Widow” and an expensive reboot of the science-fiction epic “Dune.”

That prospect has sent Omaha-based businessman William Barstow, whose Main Street Theatres operates eight locations and 48 screens in Nebraska and Iowa, into uncharted waters. Barstow has spent 30 years studying what makes people come to the movies, but none of them, he says, has been like the last three months, in which he has pored over professional polls and conducted informal ones of his own to understand the anxieties he needs to address.

One conclusion: Leaning in to safety messaging is a surefire way to turn off customers.

“If you’re leading off the pitch with ‘It’s so clean you’re not going to get sick’ then you’ve already lost the argument,” said Barstow, whose company is about to open a new Omaha location. Instead of talking about disinfectant and distancing, he says, he believes it more effective to roll out traditional marketing that slips in the requisite information – an image of a shiny lobby with an employee in the background who just happens to be wearing a mask, for instance.

“You let people know you’re taking care of them, but very subtly,” he said.

Barstow said he and his daughter, who runs the company’s marketing operation, have discovered that the best weapon for luring customers might be not what the theater is doing at all – it’s the sight of other customers.

The right other customers.

“Seeing someone like a mom bring her three kids to a matinee is I think going to be the best tool to make people feel comfortable about coming themselves.” Of course, he acknowledges, such events need to happen organically, captured instead of contrived on social media.

The three largest chains – AMC, Regal and Cinemark – did not comment for this story. (The companies control about half of the country’s 40,000 movie screens; the remaining 50% are either regional chains or family-run businesses.)

In a conference call with investors earlier this month, Cinemark chief executive Mark Zoradi acknowledged the precarious position the company was in when it came to its customers’ psyches.

“We have been intensely focused on developing enhanced health and safety protocols, understanding that these factors will weigh heavily on the confidence and peace of mind of our employees, guests, and community,” he said.

AMC late last week offered a vibrant example of theaters’ difficult battle to win hearts and minds. On Thursday, chief executive Adam Aron told Variety that the company wouldn’t require customers to wear masks, because to do so could turn off those who feel it is an infringement on their liberty.

“We did not want to be drawn into a political controversy,” he said – promptly drawing himself into a political controversy. While the other chains and many smaller companies were also not requiring masks inside screening rooms, many moviegoers and a range of health activists said the company’s position was untenable. By late Thursday, the hashtag #BoycottAMC was trending. On Friday, the company reversed course, announcing that it will require customers to wear masks.

For Nic Steele, who owns the upscale eight-screen Eclipse Theaters in downtown Las Vegas, health precautions are only part of the necessary messaging. Steele is looking to work on the part of our brains that equates elegance with safety.

“I’ve been exploring this a lot with my staff, and we believe the way people’s thought processes work is if you really emphasize the high-end aspects they feel more secure,” he said. “It’s like being at a resort – when you feel taken care of, that’s when you start to relax.”

So he has started, he said, to undertake some Bellagio-like gestures. “It’s as simple as chocolates on everyone’s seat. Or rose petals in the bathroom. By leaning in to the luxury aspects, you offset the thoughts of hospitals. And people need to forget about hospitals.”

Johnson, of Illinois’ Classic Cinemas, agreed that a big part of the mission is to avoid reminding people of outside dangers – avoiding, for example, the distance markings and taped-off areas that have become common in grocery stores and other retail outlets. “The idea is not to make it look like a crime scene,” he said.

Others say a key lies in reshaping employee-customer interactions in ways for the current moment. “You have to train staff how to reassure customers with their eyes, because no one will be able to see their mouths,” said Barstow, who is mandating employees wear masks.

“Maybe,” he mused, “we should hire local drama students.”

But no matter how much theater owners strategize about their customers’ psychology, they could run up against a tricky problem.

“The number one factor for us feeling comfortable doing something is seeing a lot of other people – especially in our peer group – doing the thing we’re nervous about. That’s what the research suggests drives us,” said Deborah Small, a professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“The twist now,” she said, “is that we’re told to avoid crowds.”

So far, the evidence shows some consumers comfortable with returning, but the numbers aren’t huge.

Theatrical box office reached $500,000 last weekend, or about 55,000 tickets sold, largely from cities in the South and Midwest where theaters have reopened. The number one movie, an independent horror picture named “Becky,” did a $3,700 per-screen-average – which means an average of some 400 people came to each of the locations where it was being shown over the course of the weekend.

While small, it is nearly double the number of people who came to the movies the previous weekend, when another independent horror film, “The Wretched,” topped the box office with just over 200 people at each location.

Those supplying the movies say they have no answer to what will make people feel ready to return to theaters. Mark Gill, a film-industry veteran whose new company Solstice Studios is releasing “Unhinged,” said he’s spent nights obsessing over consumer psychology without knowing what can be done about it.

“It’s simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying,” he said. “There are so many unknowns here that we can’t even know what all of them are.”


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