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Theatres across Saskatchewan close due to COVID restrictions on concession sales

·7 min read

Estevan, Edmonton, Calgary – “New restrictions has forced us to close,” Al Dougherty posted on the marquee of the 106-year old Orpheum Theatre in Estevan on Nov. 27. He and his wife, Jocelyn, have owned and operated the theatre on Estevan’s main drag for going on 23 years, with Jocelyn managing the facility. For the second time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, they’ve been forced to shut their doors, where 13 people used to be employed. They had only re-opened in September.

Those new public health restrictions were announced on Nov. 25 and brought into force on Nov. 27. They don’t order theatres to shut down, but they limit attendance in each auditorium to 30 people, whereas before it was 30 per cent capacity. But the last straw, according to theatre operators, is the restrictions on concession sales.

The concessions aren’t ordered to close, either, but patrons can’t eat in their seats. Rather, they must woof down their popcorn, pop and candy bars in the lobbies. The government press release of Nov. 25 noted, “Where any of these facilities offer food or beverage service, they must keep the activity separate (i.e. cordoned off) from the food and beverage service. No food or drink may be in the activity area.”

As such, a wave of cinema closures swept Saskatchewan on Friday, a day that otherwise would have seen the opening of a much-awaited for animated feature, The Croods 2: A New Age.

Al Dougherty said he didn’t see the logic of people being able to sit across from each other at a table in a restaurant, spitting while they’re eating, and yet not being able to sit facing the same way in a theatre.

Edmonton-based Tom Hutchinson is president of Magic Lantern Theatres, which operates theatres throughout the province.

Hutchinson said by email late on Nov. 26, “We have been having a lively discussion, and have decided that the managers should make the final decision based on their ability to serve their customers. My understanding is that Roxy Saskatoon will operate with its concession stand closed on Friday-Saturday-Sunday and then evaluate. Rainbow Cinema Regina will close. Capitol Theatre in North Battleford will close. Aurora Cinema in Meadow Lake will close.”

Landmark Cinemas Canada CEO Bill Walker is based in Calgary. As of Nov. 26, he said by phone that their Regina and Saskatoon locations would remain open for this weekend, and they would go from there. Yorkton’s Tower Theatre has been closed since March. “We're going stay open for the weekend. We had we had staff scheduled and movies planned. And so, we're going to stay open for now. And we're going to see whether customers are still interested in coming to movies where they can’t eat popcorn and watch a movie.”

For all, it comes down to the basic business model of movie theatres for the last 100 years. The movie distributors get a little more than half of the ticket prices, which means the theatre operators make much of their income on concession sales. If people can’t eat popcorn in their seats, they’re not likely to buy it, nor are they likely to even attend. The business case collapses.

Walker said, “I had to chuckle because the 10th province to announce enhanced restrictions came up with something new. And that something new is that we can be open, and we have 30 people per auditorium, but we can't sell food in the auditorium.”

They called the government’s business response line, seeking clarity, but got irony instead.

Walker explained, “The concept was you can open your concessions and you can open your theatre; you just can't sell concessions for consumption in the theatre. Sort of somewhat, unreasonably, you can sell the concessions and patrons could consume it in the lobby or in theatre street, kind of in the hallway area, but they can't consume it at their seats in the auditorium. And so, (it) doesn't really seem like a strategic approach, to have people allowed to take their mask off and consume food in those kind of general open areas, versus having them be able to take the mask off while they're seated, in a seat with all of the physical distancing measures in place to be able to take the mask off and consume some food in there.”

Additionally, theatres have been fogging their auditoriums between showings. Dougherty showed a $2,000 fogger they purchased to spray Vital Oxide, medical-grade disinfectant.

Magic Lantern had been planning to turn Yorkton’s old television studio into a new multiplex theatre in that community, but that idea was blunted by the pandemic. Last year they had built and opened a new four-plex theatre in downtown North Battleford, the Capital Annex, in combination with their fully renovated, older Capital Theatre. The older, standalone theatre has been shut down since February. “We didn’t have any product for it,” Hutchinson said.

And that has been another key struggle for theatres since the onset of COVID-19 pandemic. Most big movies, what could usually be banked on as blockbusters, have not hit the silver screen. Tom Hanks’ Second World War action movie Greyhoundwas one of the first that went straight to streaming, picked up by Apple TV+. Top Gun: Maverick has been repeatedly delayed, now well into 2021. Disney’s live action Mulanwent to its Disney Plus streaming service, but for an additional fee.

So what have the Saskatchewan theatres had to show, without new product?

“E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Halloween. It’s like a Blockbuster Video store exploded,” Hutchinson said with a laugh.

Not many people come out for those old movies, especially when combined with COVID concerns. Attendance has been very poor, which also means having plenty of spacing between patrons is not a problem.

COVID restrictions, and the push to streaming, could end up being an existential problem. Hutchinson said by phone, “And the worst part of it is that this is simply pushing the trend forward, at lightspeed. For years, people have been relying more on home entertainment for all sorts of reasons. Out of home entertainment, of all types, has been suffering. And for movie theatres, the COVID thing means everybody will have a new flat screen, everybody will have learned how to do streaming. And that will be a real alternative for them, rather than coming to the theatre. So once all the COVID is over, what's going to be left? The movie distributors will have gone straight to streaming or day end date streaming.”

Walker is hopeful that theatres will survive, saying, “There is no circumstance in my mind where Top Gun ever goes on any other platform besides an exclusive release in theatres, because frankly, the only way to generate the economics that pay for a movie like Top Gun, is to release it in theaters,

In the meantime, they have to survive. So how have they been able to hold on? Hutchinson said, “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the federal subsidy programs.”

The wage subsidies and rent subsidies have made a difference.

All these operators would like to know the reasoning behind the new COVID regulations which prohibit food and drink in the auditoriums.

Walker said, “We don't we don't want to be closed. We think our business and our industry is better served by being open. And we think we can do it safely. And our experience tells us we have done it safely. And so, if they believe we're unsafe, we'd like to understand why. And if they believe we need to be closed, we'd like to understand why, because our alternative is, we think we can be a safe venue for people to join with their family and still enjoy something that that amongst all of the fatigue that exists around us, going to a movie can still feel pretty enjoyable, fun and safe. And I think we need that. And so, if they want us to close? Yes, you we should make that explicit. But ultimately, I don't think that's that's a helpful outcome for anyone.”

Jocelyn Dougherty said, “Even with 30 people, it’s questionable with a concession, but without it, it’s not even a question.”

Walker said, “We're supportive of the overall community objective of reducing the spread of the virus, and we're quite confident we're not part of the issue.”

Brian Zinchuk, Local Journalism Initiative reporter, Estevan Mercury