Masks Now Required: How Some U.S. Movie Theaters "Fumbled" Safety Plan Rollout

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Customers expressed outrage after AMC — the country's largest cinema circuit — initially said that customers wouldn't be required to wear mouth and nose coverings when it reopens.

Throughout the week of June 15, Hollywood waited anxiously for the country's largest movie theater chains to unveil their elaborate reopening plans with one aim in mind: convincing consumers that it's safe to return to the cinema even amid the ongoing novel coronavirus crisis.

It could not have gone worse.

AMC Theatres, the biggest circuit in the U.S., was the last to release its plan, dubbed "Safe & Clean." Like its two closest rivals, Regal Cinemas and Cinemark Theatres, AMC detailed a raft of new sanitary and social distancing measures and said customers would not be required to wear face masks unless so ordered by local governments.

None of this prompted an outcry until AMC CEO Adam Aron suggested in June 18 interviews that his reasons for not wanting to require masks was to avoid wading unto political territory. (His comments came two days before a Trump campaign rally in Tulsa that famously didn't require attendees to wear masks.) 

By early June 19, AMC reversed course and said masks will be required when the chain opens up the majority of its locations next month. Within minutes, Regal announced a similar change. But the backlash couldn't be as easily erased, and the misstep put the focus on the negative at a time when the film business needs to rally consumers. Cinemark, based in Texas, has stayed quiet during the controversy. Conversely, a smaller Texas-based chain, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, says that masks will be mandatory.

"Requiring customers to wear face masks is a smart business practice. We are still in uncertain times," says Wall Street analyst Eric Wold of B. Riley FBR. "There is obviously a fine line between trying to protect your guests and scaring your guest."

Adds Exhibitor Relations box office analyst Jeff Bock, "movie theaters had a chance to really step up. They fumbled even before the game started. Hopefully we'll see some more transparency from Hollywood as we get closer to reopening. And let's hope there's a good old-fashioned Hollywood ending for all this.”

If all goes as planned, Disney will open summer tentpole Mulan on July 24, followed by Warner Bros.' event pic Tenet on July 31. The first new wide release set to debut on the big screen since theaters closed in mid-March is Solstice Studios' Unhinged on July 10. A week later, Sony's romantic comedy The Broken Hearts Gallery opens on July 17.

Joseph G. Allen — an assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who had spoken to AMC about its reopening safety plans — tweeted June 19 that he'd been involved in helping the chain "course correct" its decision and added: "Most important message: Masks work."

A version of this story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.