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story.lead_photo.caption An AMC Theatre is shown in Clinton Township, Mich., in this May 8, 2020, file photo. (AP / Paul Sancya )

NEW YORK -- After three months of near total blackout of cinemas nationwide, movie theaters are preparing to reopen -- even if it means only a few titles on the marquee and showings limited to as little as 25% capacity.

AMC Theaters, the world's largest theater operator, said Tuesday that it expects to have 97%-98% of its theaters worldwide reopened by mid-July. The National Association of Theater Owners, the trade group that represents exhibitors, expects some 90%-95% of cinemas around the world will be opened by mid-July.

A lot is still "fluid," as AMC Entertainment's chief executive, Adam Aron, said in a call Tuesday with investors. But provided flare-ups of the coronavirus don't foil plans, the industry is gearing up for a dramatic resumption of widespread business just in time for Christopher Nolan's Tenet. The Warner Bros. thriller, the latest from one of Hollywood's most passionate defenders of the big-screen experience, is set for release July 17.

Warner Bros. didn't comment late Tuesday, and the most recent trailer for Tenet was notably vague on its release date. But theater owners are cautiously optimistic that Tenet will hold where it is. Aron said AMC's conversations as recent as Monday with Warner Bros. and Disney, which has Mulan scheduled for July 24, have been reassuring.

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The larger question might be whether moviegoers feel safe returning to theaters. Health officials have warned that large indoor gatherings are risky. Broadway theaters will remain dark through at least early September. It will be up to movie theater operators to convince moviegoers that it's safe to once again sit in the dark among strangers.

Only recently have state guidelines allowed the reopening of theaters in California (including in the country's top market, Los Angeles, where officials have yet to agree). In New York City, open cinemas come in the fourth phase of its reopening schedule; it began the first phase on Monday. Aron granted New York theaters, which constitute the second-largest market, may not open in time for Tenet.

Theaters have slowly been reopening in other areas of the country, while a renaissance of drive-ins has flourished. Cinemark, which operates about 6,000 U.S. screens has said it will begin reopening in late June and fully reopen by July 10. Cineworld, which owns Regal Cinemas, the world's second-largest chain, is also tracking for a July reopening.

But AMC's announcement Tuesday signaled the most ambitious and widespread plan for a resumption of business.

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"After a period of time where billions of people have endured confinement and limited social interaction, we believe that there will be a significant pent-up demand to get back out in the world," said Aron. "Having said that, we're under no illusions. The waters will be choppy. There may be unforeseen tosses and turns to be navigated through. And full recovery may take quite a while."

AMC, like other chains, expects to limit audience sizes to facilitate social distancing, including keeping cinemas 25%-50% full and blocking out seats. Cinemas will be regularly cleaned. Ordering concessions will be possible from an app. As a kind of test case, AMC has already opened 10 theaters in Europe. Three theaters in Norway sold 83% of available tickets, said Aron.

Although 25% capacity may sound like an untenable business model, Aron said movie theaters are usually part-empty, calling them -- unlike typically sold-out Broadway theaters -- "a church built for Easter Sunday." He was optimistic box-office returns wouldn't be badly jeopardized, especially since 12-20 screen multiplexes will likely be showing only a handful of films. With so many working from home in the pandemic, moviegoing may also not be as focused on Friday and Saturday.

The prolonged closure has had a crushing effect on theater chains, forcing the furloughing and firing of tens of thousands of workers. Rumors of bankruptcy have swirled around AMC. On Tuesday, it said it lost $2.18 billion in the second quarter. Ticket sales have overall been on a slow decline. Aron acknowledged some cinemas will stay shut.

Employees spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at the Paragon Cineplex movie theater in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, June 1, 2020. Thai authorities allowed movie theater and other businesses to reopen, selectively easing restrictions against the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
Employees spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at the Paragon Cineplex movie theater in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, June 1, 2020. Thai authorities allowed movie theater and other businesses to reopen, selectively easing restrictions against the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
This May 14, 2020, photo shows an AMC theater sign at a nearly empty parking lot for the theater in Londonderry, N.H. After three months of near total blackout of cinemas nationwide, movie theaters are preparing to reopen - even if it means only a few titles on the marquee and showings limited to as little as 25% capacity. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
This May 14, 2020, photo shows an AMC theater sign at a nearly empty parking lot for the theater in Londonderry, N.H. After three months of near total blackout of cinemas nationwide, movie theaters are preparing to reopen - even if it means only a few titles on the marquee and showings limited to as little as 25% capacity. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
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