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Cineplex is Canada’s largest movie theatre chain, with 1,687 screens in 164 locations.

CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

Cineplex Inc. is scaling back its reopening plans after news that one of the summer’s biggest movie releases has been delayed.

The Toronto-based company’s decision was announced a day after movie studio Warner Bros. pushed back the release date for Tenet, a highly anticipated thriller from director Christopher Nolan. The movie, which was expected to be a tent pole for the summer film season, was initially scheduled for July 17. Earlier this month, it was delayed to July 31, and on Thursday Warner Bros. postponed it again, to Aug. 12.

It’s just the latest example of the uncertainty facing the movie industry in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Theatres in two of the biggest markets in North America – New York and Los Angeles – remain closed, changing the outlook for studios as they mull blockbuster release dates. And even where theatres are opening, with increased investments in cleaning and limits on capacity to preserve physical distancing, it’s not yet clear how comfortable customers will be returning to the multiplex.

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Cineplex is Canada’s largest movie theatre chain, with 1,687 screens in 164 locations. It had initially planned to open all its theatres in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland next Friday, July 3.

“With news of shifting release dates on a few major Hollywood titles, we are taking a more phased approach with our reopenings across Canada,” spokesperson Sarah Van Lange said in a statement on Friday. She added that Cineplex would go ahead with reopening six theatres in Alberta on Friday, and would open only “select locations” in the other provinces on July 3. The rest of the reopenings in those provinces will happen gradually throughout July, she said. Cineplex will announce the specific locations next week.

Movie theatres are still waiting for the go-ahead to reopen in Ontario, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island.

It remains an open question as to whether Tenet’s release shift will have a domino effect on the handful of other titles currently scheduled for July theatrical releases in Canada: the Russell Crowe thriller Unhinged (July 10), the Canadian rom-com The Broken Hearts Gallery (July 17), the horror film Saint Maud (July 17), and Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan (July 24). There has been industry speculation that Mulan could also be delayed.

"I think studios have two priorities right now: getting their films out there in the middle of a pandemic, and finding the safest way to do that. But from what I've seen and heard, as many as 75 per cent of the standard audience will stay away from movie theatres if they try to reopen in July or August," said Jeff Bock, senior media analyst for the Los Angeles-based Exhibitor Relations. "That's a number that studios will absolutely not be comfortable with. The only thing that studios can do right now is lean on [premium video-on-demand]. ... It won't always be this way for blockbusters, but it very well may be for the next six months or so."

Meanwhile, some of Cineplex’s competitors said on Friday that they have no plans to delay theatre reopenings.

Landmark Cinemas, the country's second-largest movie chain with 46 locations, said there was no change in its plan.

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"We open in six Alberta locations today, and all locations in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia on July 3," said Landmark CEO Bill Walker.

Cinémas Guzzo will reopen its nine theatres in the Greater Montreal Area as planned.

“We’re reopening our theatres – irrespective of Tenet or Mulan moving – on July 3,” CEO Vince Guzzo said on Friday.

Mr. Guzzo said he first suspected that Tenet would be delayed last week, when he received a letter from Warner Bros. advising theatres not to conduct advanced ticket sales for the movie without the studio’s approval.

“Our native product – French-Canadian, Quebec-made movies – are a surplus that can get us through a dry spell,” Mr. Guzzo said. “It’s done it in the past, and we’re hoping they will do it again.”

The Montreal-based company has also gotten into film distribution, buying mostly animated children’s movies from other markets that might otherwise be released only on streaming services. Two of those – Fantastic Journey to Oz and The Lost Medallion – will be released on Guzzo screens in time for the reopenings next week. Eight movies that were intended for release in the next year will now be released in the next four months to help draw people back to theatres, Mr. Guzzo said.

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The pandemic has placed additional pressures on Cineplex, which saw its $2.2-billion deal to be acquired by UK-based Cineworld Group PLC fall apart earlier this month. Cineplex has said that it will pursue legal action against Cineworld for breaching contractual obligations. Cineworld said earlier this month that it would “vigorously defend” itself against those claims, and reserved the right to seek its own damages for what it said were breaches of the deal on Cineplex’s part.

The deal priced Cineplex at $34 a share; the stock is now trading at just over $10 a share. Many movie theatre owners have seen their stock prices tumble as pandemic-related health measures forced them to close their doors.

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