As cinemas look to reopen, lack of new releases adds to movie house horror

The owners of Phoenix Theatres Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield plan to reopen the North Street venue Feb. 26.

PITTSFIELD — The lone national movie chain in the Berkshires will reopen nationwide in July, but owners of the county's other theaters aren't as definitive.

Regal Cinemas, which owns the 10-theater complex in the Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough, plans to reopen by July 10 with new safety precautions, pending local and statewide guidelines.

In Massachusetts, reopening movie theaters is included in phase three of Gov. Charlie Charlie Baker's four-phase plan. Phase three could start Monday. The Berkshire Mall's theaters have been closed since mid-March.

Owners of the Phoenix Theatres' Beacon Cinemas in Pittsfield, the Triplex in Great Barrington and Images Cinema in Williamstown all say they would like to reopen with safety precautions in July, but on dates closer to the middle or end of the month.

"I would be very, very disappointed if we weren't able to open in July everywhere across the board," said Beacon Cory Jacobson, whose regional chain, Phoenix Theatres, owns cinemas in Iowa and Michigan.

Richard Stanley, who owns the Triplex in Great Barrington, said his opening date looks like "the middle of July."

"Right now, I'm shooting for the end of July," said Doug Jones, executive director of Images Cinema. "But, there are so many factors that it's hard to know."

Regal Cinemas, which is owned by Cineworld Group, has set its opening to coincide with the release of the Russell Crowe film "Unhinged," the first major movie release since the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic forced cinemas to close three months ago.

Cineworld CEO Mooky Greidinger said in a statement that the company's priority remains "the health and well-being of both our customers and colleagues."

Regal's new health and safety measures will include contactless payment methods for tickets and concessions, and the sanitizing of each theater and seat after the showing of every movie, according to a company news release.

Each theater also will be required to sanitize high-contact points on an increased schedule and provide floor markers to assist with social distancing. Seating capacity will be reduced by 50 percent, depending on state regulations.

Besides dealing with rules in three states, Jacobson said his Michigan-based company is grappling with a lack of new movies to show, as release dates are pushed back.

Phoenix Theaters will mark its 20th anniversary in August. This spring, Jacobson said, he hoped all of the chain's properties would be able to open by July 1 to support "the return of Hollywood's summer blockbuster movies to the big screen."

"We own a theater in Dubuque, Iowa, and we could have opened that theater three weeks ago because we have no government restrictions," Jacobson said. "But, we have no new movies to play.

"If you're a restaurant, you can just go in, flip on the grill and make hamburgers and you're open," he said. "In our case, the product we have is made by someone else and we're delivering it to the public."

Due to the uncertainty, Jacobson said theater owners need to have "an enormous amount of patience right now."

"I think we need to be patient and realize we need to take some time," he said. "We'd rather do it right and open with major films. I'm also worried about safety issues. We have to be careful."

Safety rules

Since closing theaters in March, Phoenix has been studying safety precautions provided by the National Association of Theatre Owners, local officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The entire is available at at phoenixmovies.net/covid.

The Beacon won't begin training employees in the new safety precautions until a reopening date can be set.

Although the Triplex and Images Cinema don't run as many major first-run releases as the Regal and the Beacon, the lack of newly released content has affected reopening plans there, Stanley and Jones said.

"I don't know what we're going to show," Jones said. "If we opened up this week, we'd have to show 'Smokey and the Bandit' with safety precautions in place," referring to the 1977 movie with Burt Reynolds and Sally Field.

"Our challenge is getting new and exciting movies from Hollywood," Stanley said. "What's happened is the continued uncertainty about different states opening at different times and certain release dates getting pushed back. I had a release date for mid-July that looked like a go [until recently] and then they said, 'Oh, no, we'll push it back another week.'"

He said the Triplex has been setting up new safety protocols and social distancing measures for weeks.

"The more we can do to make the public feel comfortable, the sooner we'll be able to get back to normal." he said.

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-281-2755.