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Movie Theaters Can Legally Open Saturday — But They'll Probably Wait A While

Come Saturday, you can legally go catch a flick at your local theater.

Gov. Doug Ducey says it's now OK.

But don't pack the kids in the car just yet or fill your purse with candy from the dollar store.

Theater operators contacted by Capitol Media Services say they're not ready to open the doors just yet, if for no other reasons than there simply isn't anything new to throw up on the screen. But they are willing to sell you popcorn, and even bring it out to the curb for you.

On Thursday, the Department of Health Services released its guidelines for how the theaters should operate, covering everything from seating to butter dispensers for popcorn.

Only thing is, these are being phrased as suggestions and recommendations. And that leaves a lot up to individual operators — and, ultimately, to customers to see if they feel safe.

But gubernatorial press aide Patrick Ptak said much of what is in this list, as well as similar ones for other kinds of business, have come from the industries themselves. He said the governor and his advisers "expect these recommendations will be followed.''

More immediate recreational relief for Arizonans — and air-conditioned at that — is likely to come at one of the state's movie houses. But not just yet.

"Although were are not planning to reopen our theaters now, we are anxious for the day we can safely and responsibly welcome guests back into our theaters to watch movies on the big screen, where they are meant to be seen,'' reads a statement from Harkins Theatres.

The company says it is working with public health officials and industry partners to finalize a reopening plan and safety protocols.

But, for the moment, all that is academic.

"Another necessary criteria is a reliable and continuous slate of great new theatrical films,'' the company said, saying it is waiting for the planned release of anticipated summer blockbusters like "Wonder Woman 1984'' and "Mulan.''

Potentially the first up could be "Tenet,'' the latest film from "Inception'' director Christopher Nolan scheduled for release on July 17.

Still, the company said it will probably open its doors "a couple of weeks'' ahead of new Hollywood offerings, whether with previously released or specialty films.

AMC, the other big player in Arizona, did not immediately return calls seeking a schedule. The company is not listing any showtimes for the immediate future.

Alamo Drafthouse, which operates three dine-in cinemas in Tempe, Chandler, and Gilbert with full-service kitchens,  filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Wednesday

The franchisee that owns Arizona’s three Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas in Chandler, Tempe and Gilbert confirmed his business filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Wednesday. 

The Alamo Drafthouse theaters were built fairly recently — the oldest one in Chandler opened in 2016. The owner, Craig Paschich, says he wants to re-open the theaters after reorganizing the business under bankruptcy.

Arizonans anxious to sit in the dark may have some options soon.

Gary Clement, general manager of the Willcox Historic Theater, told Capitol Media Services he is ready to turn on the projector on May 22.

What will he be showing?

"I have no idea until Monday,'' he said, saying he was on the phone negotiating some releases. He said the theater, first operated in 1937 and reopened in 2012, shows first- and second-run movies along with independent releases and even some stage shows.

Still, like his bigger counterparts, Clement's operation recognizes that it's not just what's on the screen that attracts patrons: Popcorn and snacks are available curbside Monday through Friday from 3 to 6 p.m. and on weekends from noon until 6.

That still leaves the health department's protocols which are mere recommendations.

For example, it says that operators should "consider spacing out seating for those who are not in the same party to at least six feet apart.'' And even that has some wiggle room, saying that should occur "when possible.''

It also suggests that theaters "consider limiting seating to alternate rows.''

That's apparently by design.

"We want to provide as much flexibility as possible,'' Ducey told business owners Thursday during a conference call.

Other suggestions include:

  • Operating with reduced capacity with special attention to limiting areas where customers and employees and congregate;
  • Wiping pens, counters and hard surfaces between uses or customers;
  • Arrange concession areas and break rooms to provide for appropriate physical distancing;
  • Providing employees with masks and have them wear them "when possible.''

Oh, and for those who like butter — or whatever that is — on their popcorn or those flavored salts, the protocols suggest scrapping those common-use dispensers and having single-use servings.
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