"We’re Seeing 'The Invisible Man' With the Invisible Audience": Moviegoers Defiant Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

AMC Theater Generic - H - 2020

Roommates Kyle and Augustine, who prefer first names only, were sitting at a high-top in the lobby bar of ArcLight Cinemas at Santa Monica Place. It was nearly 4 p.m. on a rainy Friday and aside from four employees milling about — the one taking a break in a nearby booth was the only staffer not wearing latex gloves — they were alone but with accessories: Sipping full pints of beer, they were sharing a bottle of half-empty hand sanitizer placed between them with the lid cocked open. 

“It’s from Watts Health,” Augustine, 32, a private school teacher, says about a product that is now coveted amid a coronavirus pandemic spreading across the globe. “I found it in a drawer and had to pull it out because it was sold out everywhere.”

The movie they were about to see — Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, starring Elisabeth Moss — opened at No. 1 two weeks ago for Universal Pictures but was not sold out on Friday, and that’s why they came. “As far as we know, we’re the only two ticket holders and we’re roommates,” says Kyle, 33. “We certainly would not have come out if this were a packed movie theater. This is a pandemic and you have to be responsible in these times. So, we’re seeing The Invisible Man — with the invisible audience.”

As the outbreak of COVID-19 gripped the nation this week and brought businesses to a grinding halt, moviegoers did have choices: Stay home as a precautionary measure or proceed with caution and support Hollywood’s film industry. With limited gathering protocols, such as those instituted by California Gov. Gavin Newsom last week to curb crowds at 250 peopleThe Hollywood Reporter surveyed the scene at some of Los Angeles' popular moviegoing destinations including The Grove, ArcLight Hollywood, AMC Century City, Landmark on Pico Boulevard, Laemmle Santa Monica and three cineplexes on the Santa Monica Promenade.

Nearly everyone interviewed for this story said they were proceeding with caution but still wanted to enjoy the moviegoing experience even with some distance in between fellow audience members. Eight tourists from Atlanta were exiting ArcLight Santa Monica when THR caught up with them. “We’re still afraid to be honest, but we are here visiting and since it’s raining there isn’t a better thing to do,” says Roshan Karki, 33, of his group who took in a matinee of Invisible Man. “This is one of the safe options because we know most people won’t be here and it’s the least-crowded indoor place." 

Karki adds that while they took in a studio tour on the Paramount Pictures lot that was limited to their group of eight, they did nix a planned visit to Universal Studios before that venue announced it would close like other theme parks such as Disneyland and Disney World. His friend, Darun Kumar, 30, says caution is the name of the game. “We are cautious but we’re not afraid to do normal things and live our normal lives. We’re considering it a normal flow and following the same regime you would follow with any sickness — wash your hands and take care of basic hygiene.”

Elsewhere down the Santa Monica Promenade, a group of five teenagers were preparing to walk into AMC Santa Monica 7 for a showing of Sony’s Vin Diesel-starrer Bloodshot, one of three new nationwide offerings. They told THR that after school let out Friday, it would remain closed following the temporary shuttering of many local private schools, as well as the Los Angeles Unified School District — a move that affects more than 700,000 students across L.A. County — and they were looking for a way to kill time.

Leo Vincent, 14, who had his soccer games canceled, says “kids aren’t affected by it as much,” while friend Roscoe Merjos, 15, says he was “still being cautious but we wanted to find something to do.” Henry Crispi, 15, adds that their parents were skeptical, particularly about the kids taking the Expo Line from their private school, Wildwood School on Olympic Boulevard, but he’s “been washing my hands, like, constantly. We’ve been pretty careful and safe.”

While audiences were not exactly invisible this weekend at the box office, they had noticeably dwindled. Based on Sunday estimates, the weekend box office in North America fell to a 20-year low as traffic slowed dramatically on Saturday, and three-day revenue is expected to come in around $55 million to $56 million.

All eyes were on multiplexes across the U.S. and abroad over the weekend as coronavirus concerns translated to calls for widespread social distancing. On Friday, AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas became the first to limit audience sizes to 250 per screening or, in some cases, 50 percent capacity for smaller venues to allow for proper social distancing inside. It will continue through at least April 30, and AMC has also upped cleaning to at least once per hour, focusing on high-touch point areas, including kiosks, countertops, restrooms, glass, handrails and doorknobs.

AMC Theatres president and CEO Adam Aron said in a statement that the changes are designed to give audience members “more empty space around you within our theaters.” He continued: “We are capping ticket availability to 50 percent of the normal seating capacity for every showtime in every auditorium at all AMC theaters nationwide. Once we hit 50 percent of an auditorium’s capacity, movie screenings will show as being sold-out, even though by definition there will be a large number of unfilled seats.” 

Robert Paul Taylor, an actor most recently seen on Vida and The Good Place, checked out a Friday late showing of the Blumhouse-produced thriller The Hunt at AMC Century City 15, one of the country's top-grossing theaters. The mall, he estimates, was 75 percent empty but there were people dining and shopping and his screening was maxed out at 50 percent full. Taylor noticed one man who sneezed midway through the movie and a couple audience members “whipped around to look.” But overall, it was business as usual, aside from the extra space in-between guests.

“It’s going to be a real bummer if movies can shut down because it’s one of the last few things you can do when you’re bored,” says Taylor.

As of Sunday morning, roughly 100 theaters were closed in various locales across the country, a Hollywood distribution source tells THR, adding that the situation is fluid. Many of the shuttered theaters are in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where the first major closures occurred in an effort to flatten the curve of the virus outbreak. There are 5,548 indoor movie theaters in the U.S., according to 2019 NATO figures, with most still operating amid the outbreak, albeit implementing staggered seating at reduced capacity in each screen.

At the ArcLight Hollywood — one of L.A.'s most popular high-end theaters, which also frequently hosts premieres — crowds were extremely thin Friday. The lobby was empty, even five minutes before evening showings of The Hunt, Bloodshot, The Way Back and Never Rarely Sometimes Always. With a nearly-empty bar during happy hour, one employee, who asked not to be identified due to the company's policy against speaking to press, said workers were being told to wipe down counters on an hourly basis. She was voluntarily wearing gloves and washing her hands hourly.

The worker added that there were rumors that ArcLight's main office would close next week but that wasn't likely to extend to the theater locations, and she was torn about wanting cinemas to shutter for her own health but also needing a paycheck: "I don't think this is going to be one of those companies that covers us [with paid leave]. I know the Alamo Drafthouse downtown is doing, that but I don't think we're going to be one of those."

An online statement from Pacific Theatres, which owns Arclight Hollywood and The Grove, says the company provides paid sick time off, "so staff can remain at home and recuperate without fear of lost wages."

West L.A.'s Landmark Theater, which specializes in independent films, was almost entirely empty Friday evening, with a dozen blue-gloved employees standing around and chatting around an empty concession stand.

At the outdoor shopping center and tourist-favored The Grove, Friday night remained popular as hundreds milled around the Apple store, dining out and taking photos at the fountain. However, the mall took a number of coronavirus precautions via half a dozen hand sanitizer stations with signs pointing them out, and the crowds didn't carry over to the on-site movie theater, which was virtually empty, with no one in line at the bar or concession stand. Guest service employees wore gloves as more hand sanitizing stations were located in the lobby, but the theater still allowed guests to all use touch-screen ticketing kiosks without precaution.

A number of visitors to The Grove wore masks, and a father-daughter pair taking a video of their masked faces in the empty movie theater told THR that they had come outdoors for an Apple store stop and wanted to come by the theater just to check out the mood. Apple's physical stores have since shuttered until March 27.

Furthermore, the movie pipeline has already been hit. Paramount’s A Quiet Place Part II, Universal’s F9, MGM’s No Time to Die and Disney’s Mulan, New Mutants and Antlers have been pulled and reshuffled on the release calendar. Box office losses are already at $7 billion and could climb to $17 billion if the crisis continues through May.

As for Kyle and Augustine, the roommates at ArcLight Santa Monica, they didn’t plan on buying any more movie tickets this weekend but will instead turn their attention towards online gaming or maybe use their Xbox or Nintendo Switch, or simply connect with friends and family on FaceTime. Also, more beers.

Asked what they were drinking inside the lobby? IPAs, says Augustine, because “that’s what doctors are recommending.”

Additional reporting by Pamela McClintock.