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Australian cinemas hope to reopen by July. Here's how they might do it

No popcorn, staggered seating and more thorough cleaning could be the future of movies

Maxim Boon

In late April, Australia’s National Association of Cinema Operators set itself the goal of reopening cinemas in time for the premiere of Christopher Nolan’s latest mind-bending blockbuster, Tenet, which is due for global release on July 16. 

In a public statement, the NACO board said they were hopeful that conditions in Australia would be suitable for cinemas to safely reopen by July, adding that they were “very mindful of social distancing restrictions needing to be put in place,” and that these measures would lead to cinemas “trading at reduced capacity".

Since then, the situation in Australia has rapidly developed. Social restrictions have had their desired effect, and the curve has sufficiently flattened to the point that in Victoria, cinemas and theatres may be allowed to reopen as early as June 22. However, while the aim of reopening entertainment venues within weeks will thrill cinephiles, several major hurdles are yet to be crossed before any picture palace can welcome back paying customers.

Firstly and most importantly, authorities in NSW will need to greenlight the reopening of cinemas. The federal government has released strict guidelines outlining how various businesses should reopen, including those in the entertainment and leisure sector. Ultimately, however, the specific conditions that cinemas will need to adhere to in order to be deemed safe for both punters and employees will be for the governments of each individual state and territory to decide. 

Limitations on the number of patrons allowed in a venue at any one time are highly likely, since this has proven true for every other business greenlit to reopen so far – which includes restaurants and cafés, pubs and bars, beauty salons, libraries, museums, galleries and zoos. Cinemas will need to assess if they can actually afford to operate at a significantly reduced capacity. Physical distancing measures are likely to remain in effect for the foreseeable future, which would require staggered screenings and spaced-out seating. They will also be required to meet potentially expensive enhanced cleaning protocols. These measures might mean such low thresholds for box office revenue that reopening simply isn't feasible.

Another vital source of revenue for cinemas comes from the sale of snacks and drinks. However, in Hong Kong, where cinemas reopened in mid-May, snacks have been banned at cinemas as part of the rules to prevent the possibility of community transmission. With the average markup on the price of cinema-bought popcorn estimated to be around 1,275 per cent in Australia, it's not hard to understand why such a rule would have a big impact on any cinema's bottom line.

Another thing to consider is the question of whether cinemas will actually have any new films to show. Australia has managed to contain the problem within its own borders far more successfully and rapidly than almost every other country in the world. Whether or not Nolan’s Tenet is actually released on July 16 will be decided by the film’s producers, but Hollywood’s usual release schedule has already been thrown into disarray with a backlog of big-budget titles, including the latest James Bond movie, No Time To Die, Top Gun: Maverick, Wonder Woman 1984 and the live-action Mulan, still awaiting rescheduled premieres. As a relatively small market globally speaking, Australia’s readiness to reopen cinemas might be neither here not there if larger international markets aren't able to also reopen cinemas.

In the mood for a movie? Sydney Film Festival will be going digital this June.

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