The head of Ontario’s largest drive-in theatre chain says the province’s latest COVID-19 reopening plan threatens to send shockwaves through the Canadian film industry and put some exhibitors out of business.
Brian Allen, president of Toronto-based Premier Theatres, says “it’s absolutely unacceptable” that Premier Doug Ford’s new three-step plan prevents him from reopening his physically distanced drive-ins before mid-June.
The latest guidelines, outlined on Thursday, allow outdoor recreational amenities, such as golf courses and tennis courts, to reopen in the province on Saturday with gatherings of up to five people.
Drive-in screens have to wait longer, even though they enforce the use of masks and distancing measures. They are part of Step 1, which will likely begin the week of June 14.
Indoor cinemas are part of Step 2, meaning they’ll stay closed for the majority of summer movie season in the province. The new plan won’t allow them to open until late July at the earliest.
The update was met with blowback from film exhibitors who hoped the lift of stay-at-home orders would signal they’d be back in business.
Mr. Ford said a gradual loosening of restrictions after skyrocketing infections last month must be “done slowly and with extreme caution.”
Drive-in movie theatres were considered one of the few safe gathering options last summer as Canadians looked for ways to stay entertained while getting outside their home.
Mr. Allen said his drive-in business introduced a variety of measures last summer to keep ticketholders distanced and inside their vehicles for the duration of the movie.
That included online ticket sales with tickets scanned through the driver’s window as they entered the premises, greater distance between each vehicle and a phone app for concession orders.
“We’ve spent a lot of money and resources to develop this,” he said.
“I think a lot of people who are making decisions for the Ontario government are people who’ve probably never been to a drive-in.”
Mr. Allen said he’s already lost at least eight weeks of business at his drive-in theatres in London, Barrie, Newmarket, Hamilton and Oakville.
And he expects by the time drive-ins reopen he’ll have missed about 40 per cent of his seasonal revenue, including early summer blockbusters that are hitting theatres stateside.
“When you cut out our season, you’re cutting out our lifeline,” he said.
“They seem to do things with a hammer, rather than a scalpel…. It’s going to put some drive-ins possibly out of business.”
Movie theatre operators also criticized Ontario’s three-step plan, which wouldn’t see indoor cinemas open until late July at the earliest.
Nuria Bronfman, executive director of the Movie Theatre Association of Canada, said Ontario’s new approach “makes no sense” to exhibitors.
“It is clear this reopening plan was developed in secret with zero consultation and it shows,” she said in a statement.
“Keeping cinemas closed despite zero cases being attributed to movie theatres anywhere in the world simply defies all reason.”
Cineplex Inc. president Ellis Jacob expressed his surprise at losing most of the summer movie season. He had expected Ontario movie theatres would be mostly back in business by late June, in time to screen the ninth instalment of the Fast and the Furious franchise.
“We have been operating safely in Quebec since February — throughout the entire third wave — while allowing 250 guests per auditorium,” he said in a statement.
“Cinemas will be locked down in Ontario longer than any other jurisdiction in the world, all due to a government that ignores the facts.”
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