TORONTO — Ontario movie theatres will be back in business on Friday as the province moves into Step 3 of reopening in the heat of summer movie season, but strict capacity limits have sent a chill through exhibitors' hopes of drawing the big crowds for the latest blockbusters.
It's another twist in the storyline for movie exhibitors that hope to recover whatever business they can from what's usually the busiest time of the year.
Making those goals tougher are the province's new COVID-19 rules which say cinemas can operate at a maximum capacity of 50 per cent inside each auditorium and a cap of 1,000 people within the entire building.
Ellis Jacob, chief executive of the country's largest exhibitor, Cineplex Inc., said it's those overarching capacity limits that he considers "unfair," as they put all theatres — no matter their size — under the same restrictions.
Smaller cinemas with fewer screens, for instance, will need to follow the same guidelines as megaplexes that often have more than 20, which could mean Cineplex will be forced to turn away moviegoers at some of its bigger locations.
Jacob said he anticipates the summer will be characterized by pent-up demand siilar to what he's observed in other reopened Canadian markets.
Theatres in Ontario have been closed longer than anywhere else in North America, with locations in the Greater Toronto Area shuttered for nine months.
With titles such as "F9," the latest in the "Fast & Furious" franchise, and Marvel's "Black Widow" already on standby, and "Space Jam: A New Legacy" and G.I. Joe action flick "Snake Eyes" set for later this month, Jacob suggested some cinemas might near capacity limits for Stage 3.
"It's going to be a full slate of films," he said.
It's a problem Canadian exhibitors didn't need to consider last summer as the virus gripped Hollywood.
At that time, only a handful of notable new releases were sent to North American theatres, which forced exhibitors to pad their schedules with old favourites, including "Jurassic Park" and "The Goonies."
So much is different this year: U.S. theatres have been open for months, distancing measures stateside have been relaxed and vaccinated ticketholders don't require masks at many of the big chains.
Ontario isn't expected to take similar steps any time soon. All moviegoers will be required to wear masks and Stage 3 rules will be in effect until at least early August.
The Movie Theatre Association of Canada responded to Ontario's latest reopening plan with a statement that at once celebrated the return of Ontario cinemas while lambasting the government for "arbitrary and unreasonable" restrictions.
The organization has pushed for cinemas to reopen for months, highlighting a lack of consultation from the province or consistency across the country.
The association said Alberta has no capacity limits on theatres, while Saskatchewan won't when it moves into the next stage of reopening on Sunday. Quebec allows 250 people in an auditorium, while British Columbia's rules fall in line with Ontario's 50 per cent limit. The Atlantic provinces vary in capacity from 50 per cent to full capacity, while Manitoba cinemas are still closed.
"Cinemas in Canada have welcomed more than 7 million guests during the pandemic and not a single case of COVID-19 has been traced back to the movies," the association said.
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, explained on Friday that while the reopening plans move forward, he remains concerned about the presence of the Delta and Lambda variants. The Delta strain is currently dominant in the province.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2021.
David Friend, The Canadian Press