Wednesday, February 24

Business closures: Mexico’s movie theaters agonize over lack of clarity about reopening in the pandemic

A half-empty movie theater in Mexico City in August 2020.
A half-empty movie theater in Mexico City in August 2020.Mario Jasso / Cuartoscuro

The steps in front of the enormous gray and orange facade of the Cinemex de Tláhuac, south of Mexico City, have stopped smelling like popcorn. The queues to buy tickets that once filled this place are just a reminder of the prepandemic of Marcos Martín López Hernández, who until two months ago worked for the second most important exhibitor in Mexico. The first wave of the coronavirus in Mexico closed the cinemas and when they could reopen after the respite that the virus allowed in summer, they only hired him for half a day. Since then, he has had to combine his working life with a second job in a restaurant to maintain a sufficient income.

More than 55% of Mexican cinemas remain closed and users feed social networks with suspicions of definitive closures in states such as Puebla or Veracruz. “They have not given us any instructions to know when we are going to return,” laments Hernández. Despite the fact that the capital has returned to an orange traffic light with shutters raised in shopping centers, gyms and restaurants, movie theaters still do not have a specific date to show again.

Hernández had been working for Cinemex for three years when on December 18, when the government of the capital announced the return to the highest level of epidemiological risk, the red traffic light. That day they announced to him that this would be his last day. “You could see that the cinema would close. They told us that we would close, that there would be no pay and that only the cleaning staff and some managers would continue working, ”he recalls. The National Chamber of the Cinematographic Industry (Canacine) estimates that approximately 150,000 indirect jobs depend on this industry, which directly feeds 50,000 Mexican families. However, only 21 of the 32 federal entities have authorization to allow the activity of cinemas, according to the Chamber informed the EFE agency.

Mexico is one of the countries that goes to the movies the most. However, the hit of the pandemic resulted in a slump in ticket sales and popcorn with an 80% reduction in box office revenue by 2020, a total of 417 million pesos (20.85 million dollars). The previous year they had reached 1,707 million (slightly more than 85 million dollars), according to Canacine statistics. A total of 335 million tickets were sold in 2019, the highest number ever. However, in 2020 there were just 62 million.

The suspicion of the definitive closure of some theaters recently spread through social networks when several users reported that it was no longer possible to buy tickets at Cinemex after February 12. Currently, the website to buy tickets no longer allows access to the virtual box office. EL PAÍS repeatedly requested information from the company without obtaining a response.

A worker from the Cinemex corporate area assures that the decision to close 145 theaters was made in early February. “They called a virtual meeting of the finance area to give us the information that the cinemas are going to close because it is more expensive to keep them open, in addition to the fact that there is no product to sell because the suppliers have not wanted to deliver it due to lack of payments” in exchange for remaining anonymous for fear of retaliation. Like Hernández, the workers are not paid and have no prospect of being able to return to their jobs soon. Employees of Alboa, the chain of entertainment restaurants with bowling and games owned by Cinemex, face the same fate.

In response to user concerns, Cinépolis, the industry’s leading chain, reassured its audience about the bankruptcy rumors. “For the time being, Cinépolis will keep its doors open in those places where the authorities allow it,” they announced in a statement. Cinemex’s competitor company expressed solidarity with its rival and recognized that industry workers are “facing great challenges and making very difficult decisions with the sole objective of survival.”

The economic crisis derived from the pandemic has pushed several business groups to demand authorization to open with sanitary measures. Unlike the cinema, the restaurant sector, which was forced to lower the blind again with the red traffic light, managed to negotiate with the Government of Mexico City the opening of its open-air premises despite the fact that the rest of the capital was still closed . Last Friday, the Head of Government, Claudia Sheinbaum, announced the return to the orange traffic light after overcoming the peak of the pandemic and returning to 68% hospital occupancy after reaching 90% in January. Shopping malls, churches, gyms and small stores may reopen, but cinemas “will have to wait.”

Canacine insists that several studies show that screening rooms are safe in a pandemic. “Scientific evidence shows that the closed places with the highest probability of contagion of covid-19 are those where people talk, shout and sing. There is no talk in cinemas, that is why cinemas are not contagion centers ”, the industry chamber pointed out on their social networks. In addition, they add that of all the cases of massive infections studied by the authorities, none have been detected in a screening room. Even so, Sheinbaum has not commented on the details of his conversation with representatives of the chambers to negotiate a reopening.

Meanwhile, Hernández looks for another job. Before the pandemic, he earned 2,300 pesos a fortnight ($ 230 a month). The few months that he resumed his job during the summer before the second wave, he was only offered a half-day for 1,200 pesos every two weeks ($ 120 per month), which is why many of his colleagues resigned. Even so, he assures that he is one of the lucky ones that he has another job to support himself with. “It doesn’t affect me that much, but I remember that one of my colleagues was going to have a baby and his only form of income was Cinemex,” he details. Although the recession of the pandemic allows a return to the cinema, believe the paralyzed filming in Hollywood will not motivate the public to visit the big screens. “We will return, but there will be few people who want to attend the movies because there are no premieres,” he says.

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