With the reopening of Landmark Cinemas locations across B.C. just days away, CEO Bill Walker is offering a sneak preview of what lies ahead.

Landmark circled July 3rd as its reopening date for 13 theatres, including the ones in Courtenay, Campbell River, Nanaimo, and Port Alberni.

Walker said they made the decision based on provincial guidelines, and how it would work in a multiplex-type environment.

“With some analysis on that, we figured we were able to open safely, under the capacity limits and able to open with what the province set out,” Walker said. 

“So we are opening this weekend in some of our Alberta theatres. So while we could have rushed to open sooner, we wanted to get a week of operating experience in a few markets first, and sort of refine that operating plan and make sure there are no kinks, before we roll out wider in British Columbia and other parts of Alberta.”

Walker said pandemic’s financial impact “has been huge.”

“We went to zero (revenue). We’re an in-theatre experiential business that requires great groups of strangers to come together and share a movie on the big screen. That’s what we’re all about and we don’t have a lot of other outlets to generate revenue,” Walker said. “We went to zero quite quickly and that was difficult.”

He noted that government programs have been helpful in allowing Landmark to keep a lot of its full-time staff, and contribute to its reopening efforts.

Walker said the theatre business has been through lots of ups and downs over the years, but this year is different.

He’s keeping things in perspective, however. 

“What we’re really all trying to do is get through the health crisis, so we can revert back to the businesses that we love and that we experienced before. I fundamentally don’t believe that people’s habits and preferences change over the course of three or four months. I think once the health crisis subsides, I’m quite confident that the desire for people to be out, and be together, and share a movie experience on a big screen is something that’s going to be demanded in the market.”

Locally, the leather recliners at the Courtenay theatre established physical distancing before it became a thing, Walker said.

When the seats were put in a year-and-a-half ago, seating capacity was cut from 633 to 301 to allow room for them.

“That’s giving customers back a lot of personal space, allowing them to distance themselves and have a little bit more personal space when they are enjoying a movie,” Walker said. “In Courtenay, we really have the ability to reopen and give customers even more personal space again with our reduced theatre occupancy.”

In Campbell River, occupancy will be reduced to 25 per cent of the existing seats in the complex.

“We can operate those locations with restrictions that still allow a lot of personal distance,” Walker said.

You’re encouraged to buy your tickets online, Walker said, for two reasons: It gives you certainty that you know you have tickets and where you are sitting, and also lets staff know exactly how many people are going to be in the theatre for each showtime. 

You’re also asked to arrive at least 20 minutes before each showtime, to help make the experience smoother for everyone.

Through reserved seating, seat maps are adjusted to ensure physical distancing.

“In Campbell River, there is one in the row in front of you, no one in the row behind you, and then three seats to your right and three seats to your left,” Walker said. “Our seats are going to be sold in pairs and so you’ll have great certainty in the reserved seating system that one one is going to be around you.”

The same rules apply in Courtenay. “In recliners, space to your left, space to your right, space in front and behind, the recliner’s going to be blocked off, and so people will certainly appreciate that and I think customers will manage that themselves.”

He added that Landmark is “all-in” with physical distancing and will have measures that may even “go above-and-beyond” provincial requirements.

“We’re designing our experience to the person who said, ‘I’m on the fence, I don’t know if going to movies is a good idea or not, am I comfortable doing that today after I’ve been locked up in isolation for a period of time,’” Walker said.

“We want them to come out, experience it, and say ‘You know what? That was safe, that was enjoyable, and I am able to do that safely,’ and reflect on their experience that way if you weren’t sure going in.”

He said while the wage subsidies are helpful in supporting the company as it reopens, things like PPE’s and enhanced cleaning are expensive, “but really what choice do we have?”

“That’s the environment we are operating in and that’s the right thing to do as a business, so that’s absolutely what we’re going to do.”