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A movie theatre owned by Famous Players, a subsidiary of Cineplex Entertainment, remains closed due to COVID-19 restrictions in Toronto, Ontario on April 6, 2021.

CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

Ontario’s summer movie season is saved. Or about 50 per cent of it.

On Friday, the Ontario government announced that it would be moving up its Step 3 reopening to start July 16, about a week ahead of expectations. The plan will allow for, among other things, the resumption of indoor dining and the reopening of movie theatres. Cinemas have been shuttered in some parts of the province, including Toronto, since October of last year.

Yet while restaurants and bars will be able to operate with no defined capacity limits other than requiring patrons to maintain physical distancing starting next Friday, cinema attendance will be capped at 50 per cent in each auditorium, to a maximum of 1,000 people a building, no matter the size of the multiplex or the number of its screens.

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“We’re excited to be reopening, but it is disappointing that we’ve been restricted in capacity,” Ellis Jacob, chief executive officer of Cineplex, the country’s largest movie theatre chain, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “It makes no sense that our theatre in Belleville can have 1,000 people, but in our Queensway location we’re also restricted to 1,000 even with many more screens there.”

Face coverings will still be required, and all Step 3 restrictions will be in place for at least 21 days.

Movie theatre capacity regulations currently vary province to province. British Columbia’s cinemas, for instance, are operating at 50 per cent capacity. Meanwhile, the Atlantic provinces range from 50 to 100 per cent capacity; Quebec allows 250 guests an auditorium. Saskatchewan is expected to lift limits in two days, and Alberta has already removed all restrictions. Once Ontario enters Step 3 next week, only theatres in Manitoba will remain closed in Canada.

“After enduring North America’s longest lockdown, exhibitors are thrilled to finally be able to reopen in Ontario. However, the province continues to burden movie theatres with arbitrary and unreasonable capacity restrictions that have no basis in any scientific analysis or meaningful stakeholder engagement,” Nuria Bronfman, executive director of the Movie Theatre Association of Canada, said in a statement.

“Cinemas in Canada have welcomed more than seven million guests during the pandemic and not a single case of COVID-19 has been traced back to the movies. Ontario’s revised capacity restrictions not only negatively impact the business, they unfairly stigmatize cinemas while privileging other environments and stakeholder groups that don’t have the same results.”

Still, the news is a welcome development for Ontario moviegoers, who have so far have been unable to access the season’s biggest and buzziest films, including A Quiet Place Part II, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, The Forever Purge, Zola and F9 – titles that have only been available to watch at the province’s few drive-in cinemas, if at all. Ontario’s theatrical market makes up about 40 per cent of the country’s total box office.

The reopening represents long-awaited relief for players across the domestic film industry, including distributors. They have had to either delay titles or survive on the revenue of digital-only releases, which typically lack the marketing awareness that accompanies a theatrical release.

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“We are thrilled that the government has moved up Phase 3 and opened theatres, we were always supportive of the initiatives to open theatres sooner given the safety of attending theatres,” Laurie May and Noah Segal, co-presidents of Canada’s Elevation Pictures, which will release the medieval fantasy The Green Knight in theatres this month, said in a statement.

Also celebrating the news is the Toronto International Film Festival, whose 46th edition this September was built on the hope that Ontario theatres would open this summer, and remain open.

“It was always part of our 2021 plan to have limited in-person screenings, but now with this official reopening of cinemas we can welcome back audiences in additional venues,” TIFF co-heads Joana Vicente and Cameron Bailey said in a statement. “To be able to give festival goers the collective experience of enjoying a film once again is exciting.”

Ontario’s expedited Step 3 will arrive a week after the premiere of the superhero film Black Widow, one of the most-anticipated blockbusters of the summer and one whose pandemic-era release strategy – it is available in both theatres and through streamer Disney+ with Premier Access – will act as a litmus test for the future of the big-screen market.

“The presales for Black Widow have been strong, especially out west,” Jacob said. “We’ve seen that, across Canada, our guests want to come back to the theatre in a big way.”

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