“We had 900,000 guests in the first week”: Cineplex CEO Ellis Jacob on their massive reopening weekend

“We had 900,000 guests in the first week”: Cineplex CEO Ellis Jacob on their massive reopening weekend

Photo by John Narvali

Cineplex CEO Ellis Jacob is finally welcoming Ontarians back to the big screen after nine months of lockdown. Audiences have been super enthusiastic (and super hungry for popcorn) since opening weekend earlier this month. Here, he tells Toronto Life about the allure of the darkened theatre, the return of TIFF and why Cineplex and jab could be the new Netflix and chill.

How does it feel to finally be open again after nine months of lockdown?
It feels exciting and awesome. I live close to the Varsity theatre, so on opening weekend I walked down there to see our staff and customers. Everyone was so excited. Rafiq Khimani, our GM, was standing at the entrance, and there were guests that were ready to hug him. That’s a testament to how much they have missed going to the movies. I popped into a few theatres, and I could see the excitement in people’s eyes as they watched the screen, which was pretty gratifying. Maybe the movie was great, but I think it’s also the enthusiasm of being back in a theatre.

So you’re not worried that audiences have turned into couch potatoes after nine months of streaming entertainment at home?
I think the opposite is happening. We saw that with the new Netflix numbers that came out last week, which weren’t as good as they have been. People want to leave their houses—they want to get away from their phone ringing and the kids running around to have that big theatre experience. One of the movies we’re playing is A Quiet Place Part II, which was available to stream in Canada in early July, but a lot of people want to see it on the big screen. Black Widow was released in theatres and through Disney Plus, and that’s another one that has done really well for us.

What was opening weekend like in terms of your box office?
We were very happy with our numbers—close to half a million people on opening weekend and 900,000 in the first week. That’s lower than the same period the year before, but the current restrictions limit how many guests can occupy each theatre. There’s also a cap of 1,000 guests per venue. That sounds like a lot, but in locations like Yonge and Dundas, the Queensway and Vaughan—which each seat about 3,000—it’s very restrictive. We’re not able to sell anywhere close to capacity.

The bigger question is, how much popcorn did you sell?
We sold a lot of popcorn—more than normal actually. When people came back, they wanted to have that classic movie experience. A lot of people are ordering in advance from our app to have an almost-touchless experience.

What was the first movie you saw?
I haven’t had time to see a full movie yet, because I’ve been so busy running between locations. This past weekend, I was in Barrie to check in on our new Rec Room, where we have food and drink, video games, pool tables. I hoped to run across the street to see a movie, but I didn’t have time. I’ll get there though. I’m really excited to see the new Anthony Bourdain documentary, Roadrunner.

So you’re more of an art-house guy?
I’m both. It depends on who I’m with. My wife is a fan, so we will probably see the Bourdain documentary together. I love the big blockbusters too. I’m really excited to see the new Bond movie in the fall and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.

Dune is going to be at TIFF this fall. Will Cineplex be involved?
Definitely, we are working with TIFF to host screenings at our Scotiabank Theatre. Last year, we weren’t able to participate because everything was at drive-ins, which was hard. We’re currently discussing protocol and hoping things can be closer to normal. Of course, a lot depends on how things progress over the next month.

You’ve said that the current regulations aren’t following the science. What are they following?
I think the province is being extremely cautious—which I understand—but movie theatres are being lumped in with other indoor activities in a way that isn’t really fair. When you say 1,000 people can be in a concert venue or a large theatre that’s one thing, but in our facilities, every auditorium is a separate entity.

So what should the rules be?
I think a 50 per cent capacity limit is fair. And then I would remove the 1,000-person cap that penalizes larger multiplexes. At our locations in B.C. and Alberta where restrictions have loosened, we leave empty seats between customers as an extra precaution. When you book your ticket, the system blocks off the seats around you.

How are people supposed to make out on their movie dates with a one-seat gap?
If you book your tickets together, you can sit beside another person or group, so that should be okay.

What other kinds of Covid-safety measures are in place?
We’re very serious about all of the protocols. We spent a lot of money upgrading our air circulation, all of our theatres are sanitized between viewings, and we have new protocols for exiting the theatre to avoid clusters of people. In Ontario, we require masks in the lobby and common areas, but you can take it off when you’re eating or drinking in your seat.

Not to be a downer, but with the Delta variant, there is a possibility that things will get worse again before they get better. Are you preparing for a fourth wave?
Our recovery is going to be driven by the vaccine, and Ontario is doing extremely well in that regard. We need to get as many people double vaccinated as we can. Cineplex was trying to be involved, back when the province was sourcing locations for vaccination clinics. Now that we’re showing movies again, we could offer an incentive. Come and get vaccinated and then watch a movie.

Cineplex and jab could be the new Netflix and chill?
Right. I was thinking we could do a lottery where people who get vaccinated get entered to win free movies for a year. It has potential, but so far I haven’t heard anything from the government.

Are you in touch with the premier?
I am in touch with Lisa MacLeod, who is the culture minister. She has said that they are hoping to get things to a reasonable level in the next couple of weeks, but it hurts because these are the busiest weeks of our year.

That doesn’t sound encouraging.
When I was first getting started with Galaxy Theatres 20 years ago, I was opening up in smaller markets and people said, “Are you crazy, nobody is going to go to the movies when they can rent a VHS for half the price.” That never happened. Obviously the pandemic has been very challenging, but we have survived 100 years of disruptions, and we will thrive again.