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U.S. Movie Theaters Say It's Safe To Watch A Film: How About 'Unhinged'?

Theaters around the country have begun showing the first new movie since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered cinemas: an audacious road rage movie titled Unhinged, starring Russell Crowe.

The $30 million dollar movie opened internationally, where it's been number one at the box office in some countries. Now it's playing in the U.S., where 70% of theaters are now open, except in Los Angeles, New York or other cities where the numbers of coronavirus cases are high.

"When our patrons come back, they'll see the safe environment we've provided for them," said John Fithian, president and CEO of NATO, the National Association of Theater Owners.

Fithian invited two medical experts and the heads of the country's biggest theater chains to launch a public awareness campaign dubbed "CinemaSafe," meant to ease moviegoer's fears. The campaign featured new industry-wide health and safety protocols, including mandatory face masks for moviegoers and employees, social distancing and regular sanitizing in theaters with better air ventilation, reduced theater capacity (most between 30% and 50%), and contact-less, electronic ticket sales.

Fithian says the protocols will be followed by more than 2,600 theater locations, including more than 30,000 screens in the U.S.

NATO used guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"It's important to understand that going to the movies is not risk free," said David F. Goldsmith, an epidemiologist at George Washington University who consulted with NATO on the protocols. Still, during the announcement, he said he had not seen any medical literature evidence showing movie theaters around the world have been a venue for viral transmission of COVID-19. "Honestly, time will tell," he said. "We're still we're at month six of this pandemic, but that is, at least, some basis for some reassurance."

Dr. Joyce Sanchez, an infectious disease specialist at the Medical College of Wisconsin, also worked on the new cinema protocols. During the announcement, she noted that going to the movies is different from flying on a crowded airplane, or going to a restaurant or some other activities these days: audiences face the same direction as they watch the big screen, she said, and "People are not speaking. People are not singing or those types of activities that propel those respiratory droplets." (Though the new protocols do allow moviegoers to temporarily remove their masks while drinking or eating popcorn or other snacks.)

The CinemaSafe announcement was a rare show of solidarity for longtime rival exhibitors. For example, Adam Aron, CEO of the biggest movie chain, AMC, remarked, "In normal times, I might say something like 'AMC Popcorn is better than Cinemark popcorn.' But right now, actually, what I'm going to say is just this one time: I'll be really happy if someone goes to a Cinemark theater or Regal Theater or the other circuits, because it's so important for our whole industry to recover. ... We all know that the future of our industry rides on our ability to actually operate our theaters safely and cleanly and to convince the public that that is precisely what we're doing."

IMAX Entertainment president Megan Colligan said around the world, movie theaters have reopened with promising box office sales for the new Korean film Peninsula and the new Chinese film The Eight Hundred. Theater owners are looking for success when Christopher Nolan's film Tenet opens internationally next week. Colligan agreed with her colleagues that American audiences are also eager to go back to the movies.

"Some people go to the gym, some people go to church, some people need to go to the beach and surf, and some people really do need to go to the movies," she said. "It is people's happy place." Colligan said having health and safety protocols in place "is going to lead to a really wonderful escape for people and for families."

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As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition,, and