Full Article: Museums and Theaters Prepare to Reopen

Autokino at Technik Museum Speyer

Autokino, a temporary drive-in at the Technik Museum in Speyer, Germany, uses a 33-foot LED screen.

At the beginning of June, as the general lockdown caused by the coronavirus enters its sixth month in the Eastern Hemisphere and third month in the Western, the vast majority of all cinemas worldwide, giant-screen and conventional, remain closed. Only about 50 screens in LF Examiner’s database of 1,624 GS and IMAX theaters were open as this issue went to press in the last week of May, with the status of another 168 (mostly in China) unknown because of ambiguous or nonexistent Web sites.

That means that more than 1,400 GS and IMAX theaters — 87% of the world’s total — remain closed, some of them since January, with few clear signs when they will reopen.

As we reported in the April issue, on March 23 a small number of Chinese multiplex theaters were allowed to reopen after being closed for two months. However, they were closed a few days later, in part because almost no one bought tickets. This could stand as a lesson on the risk of attempting to open before the public feels ready to gather in enclosed spaces with other people.

A few dozen multiplexes, mostly in Japan and Taiwan, have reopened in recent months, and four standalone commercial GS theaters in the U.S. began welcoming visitors in May. Those four are the IMAX Theater at the National Geographic Visitor Center at the Grand Canyon, the Yellowstone Giant Screen Theatre in Montana, the MG 3D Theater at Moody Gardens in Galveston, TX, and Branson’s IMAX Entertainment Complex in Branson, MO.

Bob Perkins, president of Destination Cinema, Inc., which operates the Grand Canyon IMAX Theater and four other commercial GS theaters, tells LFX that “the Grand Canyon National Park has reopened for the past two weekends, for only a few hours each day. The theater has opened on limited hours to complement the park’s hours. All protocols are in place; visitors are appreciative. We’re seeing hundreds of visitors when we would normally see thousands. The visitors are happy that the travel restrictions are being lifted and the park is at least partially opened. However, many services are still not available.” He adds that he expects the Niagara Falls IMAX to reopen “ASAP,” and that DCI’s other three theaters will open whenever their host institutions do.

Branson’s Randy Brashers opened the retail and dining sections of his facility in mid-May, then opened the IMAX for the long Memorial Day weekend as an experiment. He was considering weekend-only screenings for the rest of the summer until tourism to the town rebounded. (We were unable to reach him again after the holiday, but the theater’s Web site showed no future screenings as we went to press.)

According to our survey of Web sites, several museums in Asia reopened their buildings and GS theaters in mid to late May. They include four in Japan: Science Museum, Osaka; Koriyama Municipal Science Museum; Kagoshima Municipal Science Center; and Fukuoka Science Museum.Others include the National Science Museum in Daejeon, South Korea, and Taiwan’s National Museum of Marine Science & Technology.

The Pennington Planetarium at the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in Baton Rouge has scheduled a pilot reopening program for Saturday, May 30, with a live star talk, a fulldome show, and a screening of MacGillivray Freeman’s America’s Musical Journey on its 60-foot (18.3-meter) Sky-Skan dome. Ticket sales were limited to 42 of the theater’s 150 seats, and the price included parking in the building’s staff lot. The $15 tickets sold out in four days. The experience gained from the event will help the museum plan its reopening process.

Sanitizing chairs in the Cosmosphere’s digital dome.

The only other institutional GS theater in North America to reopen by the end of May is the 114-seat Carey Digital Dome in the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, KS. According to public relations coordinator Carla Stanfield, about 400 people visited the museum over the three-day Memorial Day weekend, with “200+ folks just for films in our 4K digital dome theater.  Compared to 600+ [in the theater for Memorial Day weekend] in 2019, it may seem like a large drop, but in our current environment, we felt this weekend was a success, showing that visitors are looking for fun family activities and that Cosmosphere can be one of those places to provide it.”

Major museums and institutions such as zoos, with large indoor and outdoor spaces, can more easily implement social distancing procedures. Nineteen such institutions have reopened their buildings, but not their GS theaters. They are:

One of the earliest and most prominent museums to reopen is the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The museum features a 395-seat digital GS theater and a 50-foot (15.2-meter) fulldome theater, both of which remained closed when the building reopened on May 15. With nearly 500,000 square feet (46,000 square meters) of exhibit space, the facility’s capacity is about 4,000 visitors.

According to Latha Thomas, SVP of marketing, on reopening, admissions were limited to 1,000 at any one time, or 25% of total capacity. She reports that after the first week they are averaging about 75% of that reduced total.

As for the safety precautions implemented, she says, “The museum requires all visitors [ten years of age] and up to wear masks. We also installed many more hand sanitizer stations throughout the museum. There are plexi shields installed at our box office and lots of signage to remind patrons to socially distance at six feet at all times, including [in] the elevators. We also have staff constantly cleaning the museum throughout the day. High-touch areas such as handrails, elevator buttons, etc., are cleaned very frequently.”

As for the reaction, she says, “We have received lots of positive remarks from patrons that they are glad we are open and that they appreciate all the new protocols to keep people safe.”

Wait and see

However, for the most part, GS theaters and their host facilities seem to be in no rush to reopen, even in areas, like Texas, that have officially permitted businesses to open their doors. In the early days of the crisis, many museums initially predicted reopening dates only a few weeks off, and some subsequently pushed those dates back once or twice. But now virtually all are simply saying that they will be closed until further notice. At press time, the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center in Mobile, AL; The Henry Ford complex in Dearborn, MI; Ohio’s COSI Columbus; the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond; and Hemisferic in Valencia, Spain, were the only institutions officially stating that they would open in June or July.

Several museums sent surveys to their visitors, asking about their willingness to return, how soon they might visit, which attractions they were most interested in, and which health precautions they’d prefer to see implemented. Others are carefully strategizing their reopening plans, considering which procedures to use, acquiring equipment, signage, and supplies, and beginning the process of training staff.

Berend Reijnhoudt, president of Omniversum, a standalone commercial IMAX Dome in the Hague, Netherlands, is planning to open at end of June. He tells LFX, “We can have 30 people inside the theater (visitors and staff) from June 1 until July 1, and after July 1 we can go up to 100.  We need to maintain 1.5 meters (5 feet) between visitors unless they are living together as a family. So our maximum capacity will be around 90 seats (instead of 296). We will only sell tickets online; no ticket means no admission. We will ask everyone who comes to our door if they have had any symptoms…of COVID-19. We will have a limited selection at concessions, and will set up a terrace and bar outside. There will be a single direction of travel through the theater, and we will let people out through the emergency exits, which we will make look friendlier than they are now.”

Manos Kitsonas, technical director of the Eugenides Planetarium in Athens, Greece, says that his facility will be taking similar precautions, as does Loles Ballester at Hemisferic, which is part of Valencia’s Ciudad De Las Artes Y De Las Ciencias. A maximum of 42 guests will permitted in the 306-seat IMAX Dome theater. Guests will wear masks and be offered hand sanitizer, and staff will wear masks and latex gloves. Headsets, previously offered for alternate language versions, will no longer be provided, and 3D glasses will be specially cleaned and sanitized. (See also Paul Fraser’s article on using UV light for sanitizing 3D glasses on page 2.)

Drive-ins are back

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were more than 4,000 drive-in movie theaters in the US, but their numbers began to decline in the 1970s, and the total today stands at about 325, according to the database at driveinmovie.com. However, in light of the natural social distancing that drive-ins provide, interest in the concept has grown during the coronavirus outbreak. That interest has taken many forms.

  • The 88 Drive-in in Commerce City, CO, near Denver, celebrated Memorial Day with a one-time screening of In Saturn’s Rings and Space Next, both distributed by BIG & Digital.
  • Milwaukee, WI-based chain Marcus Theatres Corporation has installed projection screens on the exterior walls of at least two of its multiplexes so it can offer drive-in films to customers in the parking lots. No screenings had been announced as this issue went to press.
  • The Penn Cinema chain in Pennsylvania has also announced a drive-in program, priced at $35 per vehicle for double features, but with no further details on locations, dates, or titles.
  • In early May, the Tribeca Film Festival announced that it was partnering with Imax Corporation and AT&T to present Tribeca Drive-In, “an all-new drive-in entertainment series that will take place this summer at drive-in theaters and other exclusive venues nationwide.” Imax’s role includes using its DMR process to enhance the films’ image and sound quality, and collaborating with Tribeca “to curate the program, drawing from its rich library of IMAX content.” The program is scheduled to start on June 25. No locations or film titles had been announced at press time.

But perhaps the most innovative drive-in to emerge in the coronavirus crisis is Autokino at the Technik Museum Speyer in Germany. The museum, which hosts a (still closed) 330-seat IMAX Dome theater, has set up a 33×18.5-foot (10×5.6-meter) LED screen in a parking lot with space for 175 vehicles. Unlike projection-based drive-ins, which can only provide adequate images well after sunset, the LED screen, with a light output of 5,500 nits (about 1,600 foot-Lamberts), can operate in full daylight.

The museum’s Michael Einkörn says that a low-power FM transmitter provides audio through the customers’ car radios, adding that “[sound] quality is brilliant, absolutely no problems.” The museum is renting the LED panel and FM transmitter from a local event services company that it has worked with for years for about €25,000 ($27,000) a month, including technicians, about a quarter of the usual rate.

Working with a local cinema film booker, Einkörn has programmed the Autokino with popular Hollywood films such as Back to the Future, Knives Out, and Spider-Man: Far from Home, but no GS titles. He also partnered with a local radio station to offer stand-up comedians, who perform live in front of the screen while being captured with three cameras. He comments, “These shows were all sold out, a big success. You make less money with the comedians (they cost a lot) than with films, but as a marketing tool, they are great.”

The shows started on April 30, with up to three screenings per day on weekends, starting at 1 p.m. and running until after midnight. Many shows sold out in the first few weeks, and now weekend shows draw about 100 vehicles on average. The price is €24 ($26.36) per car, about the same price as two regular adult movie tickets.

Einkörn explains, “We wanted to ‘be there’ for our customers, visitors, and members, which is why we decided to do Autokino. We chose a fair price to send the message, “Hey, the museum is doing something great for me and my family.” We wanted to show that the museum is family-friendly in order to bring them back as regular visitors after coronavirus.” He has extended the program through June.

Tenet and Hollywood films

As we reported in April, the Hollywood film slate has been thrown into turmoil by the crisis, with most March through July releases postponed, in some cases by as much as a year. However, Warner Bros. and director Christopher Nolan have insisted for months that Tenet, filmed largely with IMAX 15/65 film cameras, will stick to its planned July 17 date. CEO Richard Gelfond and other Imax officials have stated that the company is already working on its part of the release. That would normally include striking a few dozen 15/70 prints and readying a corresponding number of multiplex IMAX film projectors that haven’t been used since Nolan’s Dunkirk left screens in the summer of 2017.

However, although the second trailer for Tenet concludes with a one-second card stating, “In theaters and special engagements in 70mm, 35mm and IMAX film,” there has been no official word from Imax or WB regarding the number of 15/70 bookings there will be. Sources tell LFX that preparations are under way, but suspect the number of 15/70 bookings will be lower than the 40 or so that Nolan’s most recent films have commanded.

Some industry observers have noticed that, unlike the first trailer, the new trailer includes no release date, surmising this could be a sign that the release will be delayed. Although a more likely explanation may be that it provides the studio with more flexibility, Warner will have its hands full if it chooses to postpone Tenet. The studio has three more tentpole features that would have to be shifted: Wonder Woman 1984, currently set for Aug. 14, Godzilla vs. Kong (Nov. 20), and Dune (Dec. 18). If Tenet is delayed, it would most likely move to Wonder Woman 1984’s slot, pushing that title into October or later, where it will have to contend with Marvel’s Black Widow, James Bond in No Time to Die, and Top Gun: Maverick.

Imax’s Gelfond has been quite visible on the subject of reopening theaters, giving interviews to several media outlets. In the April 30 conference call following the company’s Q1 financial report, he said he expected theaters in China to reopen in June, with the rest of the world following in July and August. Although social distancing procedures will reduce theater capacities, he believes that “our core audience, the younger fanboys and fangirls that most value an opening weekend blockbuster in IMAX, [will] be the first to resume such experiential activities as movie going.”

Pointing out that multiplex attendance averages out to 15–20% of capacity, and that of IMAX screens runs at about 50%, Gelfond said that Imax will take its biggest hit on opening weekends. Therefore, the company’s marketing challenge under social distancing rules will be to “move people from Saturday night, by way of example, to Tuesday night or Tuesday afternoon. Given the brand association between Chris Nolan and Imax, I actually think that’s likely to happen.”

Impact on the GS community

The closures have affected all organizations, but zoos, aquariums, and other venues with live animals are in a more difficult situation than most museums. A case in point is the Tennessee Aquarium. A May 17 article in the Chattanooga Times Free Press quoted its president and CEO, Keith Sanford. “The penguins have to stay at 43 degrees, and the lemurs have to stay at 80. We’re not like [Chattanooga’s] Hunter [Museum of Art] in that they can shut the building down and turn utilities off.”

Although the aquarium had $5 million in cash reserves, with expenditures of $400,000 a week and almost no income, half of that fund is now gone. Sanford had hoped to pay down the $17 million debt incurred for new construction, including the IMAX theater, within seven years, “which was going to be my legacy before I retired. We’re not going to be doing that.”

Twelve original GS films were set to open in 2020 when theaters closed in March. So far, only Train Time from The Stephen Low Company has a new release date: July 1, although producer Pietro Serapiglia admits there are no bookings on that date “for now.” Producers and distributors are holding to the original dates for 2021 releases and beyond, but no one can say with any certainty when theaters will reopen or which films they will show when they do.

The GS community may take some small comfort from the fact that its situation is, in certain respects, better than that of the Hollywood studios and multiplex chains. GS films are evergreen and generally don’t get wide day-and-date simultaneous releases that require massive national or international marketing campaigns. They also have active lives measured in years, not weeks. Virtually all members of the GS industry will see substantially reduced income in 2020, but once life begins to return to normal, perhaps sometime in 2021, the public will become more comfortable with going back to museums and GS theaters, the films that were delayed will garner bookings, and the world will continue turning on its axis.

In the meantime, we will all have to continue living with the inconvenience of “shelter in place,” the pain of reduced income, the worries about the health of our families and friends, and the uncertainty of when things will start to get back to normal. But as more than one person we have spoken to during this crisis has said, we will get through it.

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