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More Details on Save Our Stages Theater Aid Program Revealed at NATO Webinar

Pending President Trump's signature on some kind of overall COVID relief package, we know more about which theaters will eventually qualify for aid.

The Castro Theatre in San Francisco during the San Francisco International Film Festival

San Francisco International Film Festival atmosphere

Tommy Lau Photography

At a Zoom webinar for exhibitors on Wednesday hosted by John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theater Owners, more details emerged about the government’s support plan for theaters, IndieWire has learned. They supplemented reports on the COVID-19 stimulus bill just passed by Congress and still awaiting a signature from President Trump.

Most new details came from two lawyers who have overseen negotiations with legislators to get aid to theaters into the package. It seems that for those who qualify (about half of the cinemas in the country, which represent around 40 percent of the annual box office) there is significant funding that could make the difference in allowing them to survive. (Here’s NATO’s data link on the COVID relief package.)

Some key takeaways from the session:

1. While there is uncertainty over what action President Trump will take, NATO is operating under the assumption that the aid will be finalized soon. But there’s a chance it will be delayed until early next year when the new Congress convenes.

2. The aid involved will be in the form of grants, not loans. If members qualify based on proving losses, the money they receive is theirs to keep, though with the likely need to provide a legitimizing audit.

3. NATO members were encouraged to immediately do what is needed to apply effectively as soon as applications open.

4. It is unknown when applications will be accepted. The guess is anywhere from a week to a month.

5. The program allows for applications to be made for different entities as separate units with losses; for example, if a theater operator also owns a building.

6. Theaters can also apply under the additional Payroll Protection Provisions (PPP) in the new act, but if they do, they are ineligible for grants under the Save Our Stages program.

7. Among additional details on which companies are eligible: Any that is publicly traded is excluded. Either or both factors apply to AMC, Regal, and Cinemark (the three largest circuits). The rules also render ineligible any company with any of these three factors: operation in more than ten states, having 500 or more full-time employees, or operating in more than one country. That rules out two publicly-traded circuits, Reading Cinemas (which operates the Angelika theaters) and Marcus, the fourth largest chain.

Qualifying status for National Amusements, CMX, Cinepolis USA (a smaller footprint than Mexico’s Cinepolis), and possibly Landmark (whose owner Charles Cohen also runs theaters in the U.K.) remains uncertain. Alamo Drafthouse includes many theaters that are franchisees, not directly owned, which likely affects their eligibility.

Hopefully, studios will recognize that these grants will go a long way toward keeping doors open at many theaters, which should encourage them to reinstate more theater-first release strategies as the pandemic fades.

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