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A sparse crowd attends a screening at a Cineplex theatre in Toronto on Aug. 18, 2020.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

I was wrong. Last month, I wrote an anxious column urging film lovers to brace for a 2020 without movie theatres. At the time, it seemed like a sensible reading of the room. Hollywood studios were punting films from their fall schedules into the great unknown of 2021, while more imminent releases (Bill & Ted Face the Music, Mulan) were opting for the direct-to-digital route. Although cinemas were slowly reopening across the country, it seemed foolish to think they could survive the year without mainstream movies to exhibit.

But a few weeks later, the outlook has turned topsy-turvy – at least in Canada. In an unprecedented move, U.S. studios are releasing their marquee wares here before there, giving Canadian moviegoers the first crack at the Russell Crowe thriller Unhinged, the animated SpongeBob SquarePants sequel Sponge on the Run and, starting Aug. 26, the highly anticipated Christopher Nolan head-trip Tenet.

So I was wrong. For now.

Because while this streak is if not hot then at least medium-cool – Disney’s X-Men spinoff The New Mutants is on its way next week, as is the Dev Patel-starring The Personal History of David Copperfield – it is still unclear how long fresh Hollywood product will make its way to our screens. No matter how safe audiences may feel – and a recent trip to Toronto’s Scotiabank Theatre felt comfortable and secure on my end – no one is going to venture inside a giant dark box now unless there is a can’t-miss movie on offer.

“I don’t think that we’re going to see a lot more Canadian exclusives. We’ll get some movies the same time that they open in Europe,” said Bill Walker, chief executive officer of Landmark Cinemas, the country’s second-largest theatre chain. “We now need films to play longer and not just have everyone come in and see one movie in its opening weekend. It’s all a very unique situation, but hopefully the fall will see more releases.”

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Cineplex CEO Ellis Jacob says 'the most important thing is that you feel safe when you’re in the environment of the theatre.'Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Paramount Pictures, which won’t release Sponge on the Run in U.S. cinemas at all (instead debuting it via video-on-demand and streaming next year), has not confirmed any plans for Canadian-exclusive theatrical runs. Yet Chris Aronson, Paramount’s president of domestic theatrical distribution, said the studio “constantly reviews and evaluates … distribution strategies and makes decisions based on what is best for each and every film.”

While this week has witnessed a minor display of Hollywood confidence – Disney set an Oct. 23 North American release date for its Murder on the Orient Express “sequel” Death on the Nile, and A24 and Apple TV+ announced that the Bill Murray comedy On the Rocks will also be in theatres this October – the rest of the fall has about only one major release scheduled every other weekend. And those titles – mostly movies that were held over from this spring and summer, such as No Time to Die and Wonder Woman 1984 – could be pulled at a moment’s notice.

“It’s all about the product. I’m hopeful, because we have The New Mutants, The King’s Man, Greenland,” said Ellis Jacob, president and CEO of Cineplex, Canada’s largest exhibitor, which as of Friday will have 100 per cent of its 1,687 screens open for business. “But the most important thing is that you feel safe when you’re in the environment of the theatre. That’s what we have tried hardest to create.”

Jacob also emphasized the importance of diversifying programming and noted the success of the South Korean zombie film Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula, which opened in Canadian theatres Aug. 7, two weeks ahead of its U.S. launch, and has since earned $312,000. Cineplex is also set to release the Chinese war epic The Eight Hundred on Aug. 28.

“You need new content, and you need to have a flow of content, whether it’s Hollywood, Bollywood, Chinese, Korean ... it’s about keeping the guest coming back,” Jacob said.

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Cineplex will have all its theatres across Canada reopened as of Friday.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

No matter how many and what kind of new movies make their way to Canadian theatres, though, there is the question of audience capacity and its effect on revenue. Restrictions vary from province to province; in Nova Scotia, an auditorium can be filled to 50-per-cent capacity, as many as 200 guests, while in Saskatchewan it’s 30 per cent, and in the country’s largest market, Ontario, only 50 people are allowed per auditorium. Which is partly why Sponge on the Run earned just US$900,000 this past weekend and Unhinged brought in just US$582,000.

Those numbers may sound impressive for a pandemic era, but they are not sustainable for a business model with the overhead costs of multiplexes. Last week, for instance, Cineplex reported that revenue dropped 95 per cent in the second quarter compared with the same period last year.

“What you’re seeing now in most provinces and countries and U.S. states is that [capacity] starts at the low level and then goes to 50 per cent, and that’s the number I’m hoping to get to,” Jacob said. “It does hurt that we lost five months of business, I can’t deny that. But it’s going to be a slow step back, and we don’t want to rush it. We want to make sure it’s done right.”

Yet all the reopening tumult is set against the backdrop of an intense disruption within the film industry itself. There is the recent deal between U.S. multiplex giant AMC and Universal Pictures, which will shorten the amount of time it takes for the studio’s films to go from AMC cinemas to the video-on-demand market. There is a debate about whether theatres should play movies headed simultaneously to video-on-demand (Landmark will screen Bill & Ted Face the Music in select locations the same day that it’s available for home entertainment; Cineplex will screen it as part of its Cineplex Events series). And then there is Cineplex’s legal fight with former suitor Cineworld, which is headed to trial next year.

It is enough drama for an entire season’s worth of cinema, which leads to yet another concern: a potential drought of 2022-23 content due to a production standstill.

“There will be complexities layered on for sure, but it’s not something that we can understand today,” said Landmark’s Walker.

“People want to come back,” Jacob said. “They just want to make sure that they feel comfortable, safe and have a good experience. People are starting to embrace the return. ... This is a big win for Canada.”

For moviegoers’ sake, let’s hope he’s right. And that I continue to be proven wrong.

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