Movie Theater Chains Cut Audience Capacity by Half Out of Coronavirus Fears

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At a time when a cough or sneeze in a crowded public space can alone set off panic, the nation’s biggest movie theater chain AMC has responded to coronavirus fears with strict new measures. On Friday, the exhibition giant announced that it will cap attendance in its auditoriums, reducing capacity by at least 50 percent beginning March 14 (and continuing until April 30). And in auditoriums with over 500 seats, AMC will further limit ticket sales to 250.

An assertive — nigh, industry-leading — response to new CDC guidelines regarding social distancing, the move arrives as the clearest indication yet that COVID-19 has infected and will in all likelihood financially ravage the movie industry. As Hollywood movie studios kick a growing number of high-profile spring and summer releases further down the 2020 and 2021 rollout corridor, AMC joins a groundswell of smaller theaters and chains in limiting and modifying the movies that are getting shown at all.

In response to New York State’s “density reduction guidelines” (mandating an indefinite ban on gatherings of more than 500 people), Brooklyn’s BAM Rose Cinemas announced its intention to operate at 50 percent audience capacity “until further notice,” joining fellow New York theaters Metrograph, Film Forum, and IFC, which already had such reductions in place. Another Brooklyn theater franchise, Nitehawk Cinema, went further: “We didn’t want it to come to this but after much deliberation we’ve finally decided that in the best interest of the health and safety of our guests we need to suspend all programming at both Nitehawk locations, effective immediately,” the company said in a tweet.

On Thursday, Mark Zoradi, the chief executive of Cinemark Theatres, sent out an open letter addressing COVID-19 fears. While the national chain did not announce plans to suspend or limit movie programming, its increased coronavirus prevention measures include hourly sanitizing “high-touch hard surfaces” such as handrails, concession counters, and ticket kiosks; increased deployment of hand sanitizers, and instructing employees to wash their hands every hour.

For its part, the National Association of Theater Owners has made efforts to keep its members informed regarding public health directives and recommendations in response to coronavirus concerns, but as a trade organization with no regulatory oversight, left that implementation up to individual theater chains based on their own judgements and local conditions. On Wednesday, NATO cancelled CinemaCon, its annual Las Vegas gathering where Hollywood studios meet exhibitors to unveil upcoming blockbusters with splashy sizzle reels and proprietary trailers.

Movie Theater Chains Cut Audience Capacity by Half