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'It's unacceptable:' Drive-ins, movie theatres call for Ontario to ease restrictions

TORONTO — 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.

TORONTO — 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 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 3, meaning they'll stay closed for the majority of summer movie season. The new plan won't allow them to open until late July at the earliest.

It's a major setback for Ontario's film scene. Exhibitors were hoping the lift of stay-at-home orders would signal they'd be back in business in hopes of catching a wave of anticipated summer blockbusters.

Hollywood studios are rolling out a thinned schedule of titles over the coming months, starting with "A Quiet Place Part II" next week, "Peter Rabbit 2" in June and Marvel's "Black Widow" in early July.

Drive-in movie theatres were considered one of the few safe gathering options last summer as Canadians looked for ways to stay entertained and get outside their home.

Allen said his drive-in businesses introduced a variety of measures last year to keep ticketholders distanced and inside their vehicles for the duration of the movie. Tickets could only be purchased online and scanned through the driver's window as they arrived and greater distances were placed between vehicles.

A phone app for concession orders meant patrons could stay inside their vehicle the entire time if they did not use the washroom.

"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."

Allen said he's already lost at least eight weeks of business at his drive-in theatres in London, Barrie, Newmarket, Hamilton and Oakville. He expects by the time drive-ins reopen he'll have missed about 40 per cent of revenue this year.

"When you cut out our season, you're cutting out our lifeline," he said.

"It's going to put some drive-ins possibly out of business."

Movie theatre operators also criticized Ontario's plan to keep indoor cinemas shut until late July at the earliest. Last year, indoor theatres were operating with physical distancing measures for most of the summer.

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."

Representatives for the Ontario ministries of health and culture did not respond to questions about whether they consulted the exhibition industry before scrapping the colour-coded framework for COVID-19 restrictions introduced last fall.

The revisions are being taken hard by independent theatre owners who operate as a small businesses.

Tom and Christine Wright, who run a three-screen cinema in Port Elgin, Ont., said their retirement plan is in question as they stare down a brutal summer and mortgage payments that are still coming due.

"We're shocked and trying to figure out how we are supposed to not close our doors and lose everything we have at senior age," Christine, 66, explained.

Her husband Tom, 64, said they rely on the region's summer vacationers to drive ticket sales.

"May, June and July are our busiest — those three months cover what we lose January, February and March because heating costs and everything else goes up," he added.

"This is when our profit is made."

Cineplex Inc. president Ellis Jacob 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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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 21, 2021.

Companies in this story: (TSX:CGX).

David Friend, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: Corrects para 5 to say Indoor cinemas are part of Step 3 — not Step 2