June 26, 2020 / 10:14 AM / 14 days ago

U.S. movie theaters prepare to switch the lights back on, but hurdles remain

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When the 60-person Arena Cinelounge in Los Angeles opens again for the first time in months, more than a dozen seats will be filled by cardboard cutouts of James Dean, Charlie Chaplin and other Hollywood icons.

The seating arrangement, designed to encourage social distancing among the 15 real-life patrons who will be allowed into each screening, is one of the new safety measures theaters are putting in place to reduce the chance of coronavirus spread.

“We’re going above and beyond to make sure that everything is spotless and that audiences feel comfortable and safe being with us for two to three hours,” owner Christian Meoli said.

It is unclear, however, when Meoli and other theater operators will be able to welcome back guests.

While about 780 indoor cinemas have reopened around the country, officials in Los Angeles County, the largest moviegoing market in the United States, have not yet given a green light, voicing concern about a rise in coronavirus cases. New York City, the country’s No. 2 movie market, also has not set a date for cinema reopenings.

The theater business has been devastated by the coronavirus shutdowns that began in mid-March, laying off tens of thousands of employees and borrowing funds to stay afloat.

The industry is hoping for mass openings in July, when nationwide chains AMC Entertainment (AMC.N), Cinemark (CNK.N) and Cineworld’s (CINE.L) Regal Cinemas are scheduled to be back in business. All plan safeguards including limited attendance, extra cleaning and face masks for guests and workers.

Movie theater owners were planning to offer “Mulan” and director Christopher Nolan’s thriller “Tenet” in July. Both were pushed into August, with “Tenet,” from AT&T Inc’s (T.N) Warner Bros., set for Aug. 12 and “Mulan” for Aug. 21 [L1N2E32SK].

More shuffling of the schedule could come, depending on the progress of the coronavirus pandemic.

Currently, the first widely released film on Hollywood’s schedule is “Unhinged,” a road rage drama starring Russell Crowe, set to debut on July 10.

Crowe said he was encouraged to hear reports that moviegoers have been longing to head back to cinemas, especially for thrillers.

“They wanted to be back in that place, in that safe place, in that room, where all the craziness is just happening on the screen, not necessarily in their own lives,” Crowe said in an interview.

In Los Angeles, movie fans had mixed opinions about heading back to theaters.

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“I’m a big cinema-goer, so for me, it would be just to make sure that social distancing is in place” along with other steps such as pre-packaging of concessions, said Sean Thomas, an accountant visiting from Chicago. “That would make me feel comfortable.”

Others were not so eager.

    “You can watch movies at home, so I don’t think that’s super essential,” said screenwriter Matt Solsberg.

Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Additional reporting by Rollo Ross; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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