Ontario cinemas face new round of contractions amid Omicron surge

Landmark Cinema auditorium
Landmark Cinemas says it has to lay off hundreds and close 10 theatres in the province, while Cineplex temporarily shutters 67 Ontario locations after closures in Quebec and N.L.

Landmark Cinemas says it’s been forced to once again lay off “hundreds” of part-time employees as a result of another round of COVID-19 measures ordering theatre closures in Ontario.

On Monday, the province announced it is temporarily moving to modified Step Two of its Roadmap to Reopen due to a surge in COVID cases from the highly transmissible Omicron variant over the holidays.

The new restrictions include a closure of cinemas for a limited time. Landmark, which has 10 theatres in the province – and about 40 throughout Western Canada and Ontario – says it hopes the closure will be limited to three weeks.

“This closure will once again have a significant financial impact on our business and we believe the provincial and federal governments should restart the relief programs (rent subsidy, wage subsidy, etc.) to assist all businesses that have been adversely affected by this latest closure,” Calgary-based Landmark, billed as Canada’s second-largest motion picture theatre exhibition company, said in a statement. The company, which first issued layoffs during forced closures at the start of the pandemic, also noted it supports the government’s objective to slow the spread of the variant.

Canada’s largest film exhibitor, Cineplex, says the recent government directives will see all 67 of its theatres in Ontario closed as of today (Jan. 5). They’ll reopen as soon as allowed.

Cineplex’s 17 theatres in Quebec are also closed as a result of COVID-19 measures announced two weeks ago. Its two cinemas in Newfoundland and Labrador shuttered temporarily nearly two weeks ago when the province moved to a heightened alert level due to rising cases. A Cineplex representative says the rest of its cinemas are open in other provinces but with varying levels of operating restrictions, with the exception of Saskatchewan, which is operating normally.

Asked whether Cineplex would take a similar approach as Landmark and issue layoffs, a spokesperson said they were unable to confirm, as the company was still reviewing the situation as of press time.

Mark Slone, president of Toronto-based Photon Films and Media Inc., says the closures “mean a missing revenue window for all films.”

“For Canadian movies in particular, the big market rhythms of Hollywood relegate domestic theatrical titles to the second quarter in any case. So the length of the lockdown will be key to getting our cinema back on screen,” he said in a statement to Playback Daily. “But the bigger question is, are audiences ready to come back to movie-going as a habit rather than a special event? For older audiences for instance, caution is still leading the way.”

The new Ontario restrictions come less than three weeks after the province implemented a 50% capacity limit on larger indoor venues, including cinemas, due to rising COVID-19 infections.

Cineplex says all recent bookings for Ontario will be cancelled for a full refund, and the company has already begun processing ticket refunds back to guests’ original method of payment. “There is no need for guests to contact our guest services or their local theatre team for a refund,” the Cineplex spokesperson said in a statement to Playback Daily. “We appreciate your understanding and look forward to welcoming guests back soon.”

Other Ontario cinema closures include TIFF Bell Lightbox, headquarters of the Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF says the venue’s cinemas will be shuttered until Jan. 26 and “reopen based on trends in public health and health systems.”

Commercial film and television production isn’t mentioned in the latest measures in Ontario, although the restrictions announced nearly three weeks ago did implement a 50% capacity limit on studio audiences in that sector.

Canadian cinemas started reopening with capacity limits last spring and summer after initial pandemic closures that had “a severe impact on box-office sales in Canada,” according to Telefilm Canada’s recently released annual report, which said overall receipts totalled $233 million in 2020, down from $1.01 billion in 2019. Many cinephiles have lamented the latest closures on social media, saying it’s unfair movie theatres are forced to halt operations while some other sectors, including malls and other retail settings, are permitted at 50% capacity.

Ontario cinemas faced the longest shutdown of any other jurisdiction in the world, only being allowed to reopen at full capacity in early November, when Cineplex reported a loss of $33.6 million in its third quarter – a sharp decrease from the $121 million loss in the same period last year. Last week the Toronto-based theatre chain announced it has been granted a credit extension as the pandemic continues to deliver a blow to its business.

“With the Omicron variant spurring new mandated operating restrictions, we felt it was prudent to approach our supportive lenders for the continued suspension of the testing of our financial covenants until the second quarter of 2022,” Cineplex president and CEO Ellis Jacob said in the statement issued Dec. 30. “The timing of these restrictions was unfortunate as we were approaching our busiest period of the year. While we were not able to realize the full benefits of the film Spider-Man: No Way Home, which had the second biggest domestic opening weekend of all time and the biggest December opening ever, we know the industry is recovering and our guests want to be back in our theatres.”

- Image courtesy of Landmark Cinemas