Column: I can’t wait to go back to the movies. But AMC’s 15-cent tickets could be dangerous

People walking in front of an AMC Theatres building.
AMC Theatres are opening with “welcome back” discounts.
(Frederic J. Brown / AFP/Getty Images)

To celebrate its limited reopening and 100th birthday, AMC is offering tickets at the 1920 price of 15 cents.

Because nothing says “social distancing” better than the cinematic equivalent of an open bar.

Not in California, where theaters remain closed due to COVID-19, but in many states, including coronavirus hotspots Georgia, Kentucky and Louisiana, 100 AMC theaters will be opening their doors on Aug. 20. The 15-cent price point is good only for that single day, but at the additional 200 or so theaters planning to open between that date and early September, the chain will be showing classic films for only $5.

The exhibitor “strongly recommends” that tickets be purchased online or through its app. But tickets will also be available in the usual way — from automated machines and at the box office. Which makes having such a remarkable sale seem like a call for crowds. And if you’re going to price things from time periods that existed before the internet (at this point, $5 seems almost as absurd as 15 cents, though easier to come by with the current coin shortage), then you’d best be prepared for online to revert to in line.


Remember when Amazon sold gas and other items at “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” prices as a one-day Emmy stunt, which gridlocked the entire Westside and nearly broke the 10? Now translate that to cineplex foot traffic. During a pandemic.

Look, no one wants to get back in a movie theater more than I do — well, OK, my 13-year-old may want it a bit more — but I don’t think a marketing stunt that appears to be an attempt to lure people into theaters with financial incentives is the best decision ever made. Historically, no one lines up faster for free stuff than rich people (see please all those PPP loan fraud prosecutions) but 15-cent movies will be very hard for low-income families to resist. You know, those same families currently getting hit hardest hit by COVID-19.

North American box office will drop an estimated 61% from last year, as the pandemic has Hollywood studios holding off on new releases and theaters scrambling to make audiences feel safe.

July 11, 2020

Rich people like free stuff, but not usually when it involves being part of a clinical trial.

Which this definitely is. AMC appears to be doing everything a cinema chain could do to open responsibly during a pandemic — auditoriums will be at 30% capacity or less, masks will be required (and if you forget yours, you can buy one for a buck), antibacterial gel kiosks will replace condiment displays, and refills on popcorn and beverages are canceled until further notice.

But with people getting coronavirus at outdoor gatherings and while eating al fresco at cafes, there are definitely risks involved.

Especially with the added incentive of reduced-price concession items that AMC is offering to welcome patrons back, which also seems like a good intention badly executed.

Again, I definitely miss my movie theater popcorn and extra-large beverages cooled by that groovy soda-dispenser ice, but how is this going to work with the masks, exactly? Maybe you can slip a straw up under with little or no harm done, but popcorn? That’s a messy challenge under normal circumstances, so the mask will have to come off. And, if you eat popcorn like I do, remain off for the entire movie.


Also, just imagine for a minute what happens when someone has a popcorn-induced coughing fit and everyone panics. Stampedes are rarely socially distanced events.

Challenging times call for challenging films. But with COVID-19 keeping movie theaters shut, films from risk-taking directors are at risk.

July 23, 2020

So maybe we should just skip the popcorn. As my mother used to say when I was young and we could not afford theater popcorn, if you need popcorn to watch a movie, you don’t really want to watch a movie. Also, Skittles and Junior Mints seem like much more mask-friendly treats.

Even without the eating issue, mask compliance will be a bit tricky. Seems like every day a young barista or cashier gets bullied or even beaten by some moron who does not believe in science or the respiratory system and appears to believe the Constitution guarantees their right to flout state requirements and endanger the lives of those around them. You might be able to stop folks like that at the door, but how are you going to keep them from removing their masks once the lights go down?

Perhaps a brief quiz on what the Constitution does and does not guarantee would help.

On planes, which also require strangers to share space and air for hours, there are flight attendants, sharp-eyed, soft-spoken and empowered by TSA, who are tasked with ensuring that everyone’s face remains covered for the duration of the flight. But how is that going to work in theaters?

Will there be roving bands of masked mask-sheriffs? Will they be trained in military tactics? Because pre-pandemic, we couldn’t even get certain people to silence their freaking cellphones at the movies, so I would advise a team of former Navy SEALs, or maybe high-school-teaching nuns.

(Oh, and to the guy freaking me out while I stood behind him in line at the pharmacy and everyone like him, the mask needs to cover your nose as well as your mouth. Why on earth do you not understand this?)

Of course there’s always the chance that patrons will be so grateful to be sitting once again in the cool, quiet comfort of the magical dark that the risk of expulsion alone will ensure they abide by AMC’s rules. We all want to get back to the movies, but not in a big wild rush. If California’s botched reopening proved nothing else, it’s that we shouldn’t be doing anything that requires physical participation in a big wild rush.

Which is why, returning to my original point, AMC does not need a big marketing campaign, and certainly not one that risks a foot-traffic frenzy by marking its reopening with big bargains. Everyone knows theater chains have taken a financial beating, just as everyone is aware that ensuring compliance with social distancing and other safety measures will require more staffing and other changes, which in turn costs money.

After years of feeling outrage over ever-rising ticket prices, this is the first time movie tickets priced in the teens makes sense. I would feel much more comfortable paying full price to ensure that there is enough staff to keep things moving safely and that said staff is compensated fairly for a job that is obviously not as safe as it was in 1920 or even 2019.


Hell, to get my kids out of the house for a couple of hours, I’ll even pay a bit extra.