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Moviegoers sit in a Cineplex theatre in Toronto on Oct. 6, 2020.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

If the movie theatre industry dies, then its obituary cannot list COVID-19 alone as the killer.

Although the pandemic has delivered a brutal blow to a business that was already fighting myriad existential crises pre-coronavirus – from the advent of streaming to an over-reliance on lazy franchises – cinemas may still have a fighting chance if the twin forces of government and Hollywood step up. Immediately.

Since theatres began reopening in the summer, complete with new physical-distancing and public-safety measures, there have been no reported cases of in-cinema COVID-19 transmissions. Not just in Canada, but across the entire world, according to the Global Cinema Federation, which issued a plea this week to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to reopen theatres in his state, the lynchpin for the international market.

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“Evidence strongly suggests that the moviegoing experience is safer than other activities such as indoor dining or attending religious services,” said the GCF, which represents more than 100 exhibitors in 90 countries. “There are no reported cases associated with cinemas, despite the fact that cinemas in countries like Korea, Japan and Sweden remained open for most of the initial period of the pandemic and the additional fact that in different countries and in different parts of the United States, cinemas have been open for three to four months since lockdowns were lifted."

Yet, like New York, the governments of Quebec and Ontario have lumped theatres together with indoor businesses such as restaurants and bars that cannot similarly implement and control health and safety measures. Last month, Quebec announced it was closing all cinemas in “red alert” jurisdictions, including Montreal and Quebec City, for at least 28 days. Ontario followed suit last week, focusing on hot-spot regions Toronto, Ottawa and Peel.

“It is frustrating and disappointing, but also just sad,” Nuria Bronfman, executive director of the Movie Theatre Association of Canada (MTAC), says of the 45 theatres affected in Ontario and 60 in Quebec. “We’ve worked hard to make sure our protocols are over and above what we were asked to do. This is going to affect many theatre owners in a potentially irrevocable way.”

While Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives are making $300-million available to help shuttered businesses with their fixed costs, such as property-tax bills and hydro and natural-gas payments, theatre operators still have landlords to pay and employees to look after. And though the decision hits giants such as Cineplex and Landmark, it equally affects independent cinemas, plus everyone else involved in the multi-billion-dollar Canadian film-industry food chain.

“When you’re opening a film, you spend money to get the publicity and press in place. To then find out the day the film is opening that cinemas have to close down in your two key Ontario markets, it makes things very, very difficult,” says Hussain Amarshi, president of Mongrel Media, which released the Canadian drama Percy the day that Ford announced he was shutting theatres in Toronto and Ottawa. “Cinemas have done an incredible job to make things safe as possible. Why they’re being lumped in with restaurants is a mystery.”

A Cineplex employee wipes down a touch screen at a Toronto theatre on Oct. 6, 2020.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

After Quebec Premier François Legault sparked criticism from his province’s arts community for re-closing theatres last month, there was hope that Ontario would take a closer look at the issue, with the MTAC proactively urging Queen’s Park to not “let fear and reaction govern over evidence, data and reason.”

The campaign initially worked, with Lisa MacLeod, Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture, holding a photo-op last week at a Toronto Cineplex location, where she participated in a “socially distanced, rigorously sanitized and fully masked” screening of Tenet. Three days later, Ontario announced that theatres in provincial hot spots would be put on ice.

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“Minister MacLeod saw first-hand the new safety protocols and processes movie theatres across our province have put into place. Unfortunately, because of the hot spots in these three regions, and following the recommendations from Ontario’s Chief Medical Health Officer, movie theatres in Ottawa, Peel and Toronto will remain closed,” says Dakota Brasier, senior communications advisor for MacLeod. “Theatres in other regions of the province can continue to operate while following the additional protocols, and we look forward to welcoming back guests to impacted theatres when it is safe to do so.”

Still, government-imposed shutdowns cannot shoulder all the blame for the state of moviegoing. Hollywood studios are also responsible, though they are operating from a more logical standpoint.

Even in the cinemas that remain open, auditorium-capacity limits have made it difficult for studios to release their larger films with the hopes of turning a profit. Instead, giants like Sony and Paramount have been punting their most anticipated titles into the great unknown of 2021, or worse, pushing titles previously earmarked for theatres to streaming. In a move that should further terrify theatre owners, Disney this week reorganized its film and television divisions to strengthen Disney+, now the home of one-time big-screen properties Mulan, Hamilton and, coming Dec. 25, Pixar’s Soul.

“There is an interdependent relationship between theatres and studios that is unavoidably strained at this time,” says Bronfman. “The economics of movies are completely reliant of the theatrical experience, and while we understand studios' reluctance to release content at this time, we’re working with these partners to ensure that if they want this sector of their business model to survive, they need to participate in the challenges we face and release content theatrically.”

As of now, there are only 10 studio titles remaining on the 2020 theatrical release calendar – and that number is likely to shrink as the season stretches on.

While Cineplex is trying to remain positive – “What remains clear in speaking with many of our studio partners, is that they’re committed to the theatrical release of their films and recognize that it’s critical to the long-term financial success of a film,” CEO Ellis Jacob said during the company’s annual general meeting this week – there is no turning point on the immediate horizon.

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Of course, a separate column can be written on how theatre operators have contributed to their dilemma – from refusing to play nice with Netflix to their stubborn insistence that the “magic” of communal moviegoing could carry them through any crisis. But anyone who values the role that theatres play in our shared sense of culture and community, whose importance has only been underlined by this isolating pandemic, should take note of the current landscape.

“Big chains and independents make up this important cultural sector, but we need assistance, like rent relief, from the government that is telling us we can’t operate,” says Bronfman. “We will continue to fight the good fight.”

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

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