You can feel it. It’s very strong in this city — the forces of commerce and civic boosterism, and the economic needs of the arts and entertainment industries, pushing us to quit worrying about COVID-19 and buy a ticket to something, anything, outdoors, indoors, anywhere. Anywhere but your living room.
In Chicago, June 11 brings the hallowed Phase 5. No capacity restrictions, ahead of nearly every other big city in America. Others are right behind, but this time, the Second City went first. Fingers crossed. Especially come Lollapalooza time later this summer, when social distancing will sound like a punch line.
To some outside our civic bubble, Chicago’s erratic and then aggressive reopening in time for summer seems “precipitous and kind of nutty,” in the words of Washington Post drama critic Peter Marks.
As a civilian and a culture reporter, Marks told me, reopening too quickly “gives me pause and makes me nervous. The vaccine gives me a lot of confidence, but I have tons of friends and acquaintances who will not go back to the theater or the movies yet. They are not convinced it’s a safe environment.”
In Chicago and beyond, this is how it’ll be for a while: Another opening, another test case of whether movie theaters can star in their own comeback saga.
This week’s test is a big one: “In the Heights,” the Jon M. Chu screen version of the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical. It’s good, by the way. And it’s now playing in wide release at nearly 30 different Chicago and suburban locations, simultaneous (aka “competing directly”) with its HBO Max streaming premiere.
At the Music Box Theatre in Lakeview, “In the Heights” sold nearly 1,200 advance tickets prior to the June 10 opening. Coming out of a pandemic? “For us, that’s huge,” says general manager Ryan Oestreich. “We haven’t had anything like it since February 2020, when we were selling tickets for the 70 Millimeter Film Festival.”
Let’s clarify this. The City of Chicago may be lifting all capacity restrictions June 11 for movie theaters, along with other indoor performance and entertainment venues. But there are precious few, if any, theaters choosing to implement that phase in full.
The Music Box has two auditoriums, the larger seating 748. Right now, the theater is holding capacity at 250. It’ll stay that way for the duration of its limited two-week “In the Heights” run. Elsewhere around town, and the suburbs, the movie will remain in movie-starved theaters as long as moviegoers go.
Oestreich notes his theater presold “In the Heights” tickets under that 250-person cap. Changing it now, he says, would constitute a bait-and-switch.
“For two more weeks we’re going to hold those restrictions in place,” he says. By Labor Day, he hopes to be back up to 100% capacity.
And he hopes there’ll be a demand for it.
The nation’s largest chain, AMC Theatres, is sticking for now with its policy of “seat blocking.” This means when you buy a ticket online, the seat to your left and to your right is automatically not for sale. That puts AMC’s self-imposed capacity well below 50% nationwide, even in markets that no longer restrict anything.
“In the Heights” represents one test case. Although the Music Box won’t be showing it, “Fast and Furious 9” is the next one, premiering across America June 25 after rolling out earlier in June across much of the rest of the world.
Those two films aren’t going after the same audiences, according to Oestreich, even though they’re both PG-13 and by general definition they’re both offering A Good Time At The Movies. But, he says, “if everyone’s feeling good about the experience of coming back to the theaters for ‘In the Heights,’ I think ‘Fast and Furious 9’ is going to be huge.”
I’ve been inside movie theaters, occasionally, for nearly a year, even when it really didn’t feel right or safe, and when precious few moviegoers were venturing back last summer.
Like you, maybe, I’ve been eager to get back inside in front of a big screen under the right conditions. The vaccinations make me feel better about my odds for forgetting the pandemic long enough to focus on the screen, surrounded by fellow moviegoers.
I saw the Taiwanese drama “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” the other day at the Music Box, at a 4:30 p.m. weekday showing. Nearly 150 people were there. That would’ve been a good house even in pre-Covid times for that film, even at that theater, on a weekday matinee.
Meantime, though, I’ve found myself at odds with a lot of how America, and Chicago, has zigzagged and mismanaged and now, suddenly, recklessly, prodded a return to business as usual. The streets are literally littered with discarded masks. In New York, the fall Broadway opening announcements have pushed the reopening of Broadway earlier and earlier, with Bruce Springsteen’s solo show (already taped for Netflix) arriving June 26. You’ll need proof of full vaccination to get in, which is the right way to go. The honor system has not held up very well these 15 months in America, for much of anything.
But things change quickly. Last month, film critic Joshua Rothkopf ventured back into the restricted-capacity confines of New York City’s movie theaters recently for a New York Times feature. He noted the “deserted lobbies and empty escalators,” which added to what saw as “the overwhelming zombie-mall weirdness of it all.” A few weeks later, here we are. Are the zombies retreating?
How “In the Heights” performs at the box office this month is the next test. It will signal either a brave and enthusiastic new phase of 2021 moviegoing; a distressing sign of nagging moviegoer doubts about going back inside theaters when they can stream the same damn movie at home that night; or something between those two extremes.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
What to eat. What to watch. What you need to live your best life ... now. Sign up for our Eat. Watch. Do. newsletter here .