It’s a shaky business model: Your target audience can’t go see your movie in theaters.

The new teen romance “Five Feet Apart” features two young lovers with cystic fibrosis. But people who have the disease are likely to stay away from theaters for fear of infection.

“It’s a real Catch-22,” said Darlene Wagner, whose daughter has CF.

“People with CF really want to see this movie about their lives, but the risk is too high. The precaution is so strong to stay healthy.”

CF patients are warned to stay at least 6 feet apart, lest they spread cross-infections through sneezing or coughing. Going to a movie theater means the possibility of unknowingly being within that distance of other people with CF.

The film, which opens nationwide this weekend, stars Cole Sprouse and Haley Lu Richardson as two CF patients who fall for each other in the hospital. The title suggests that they break the barrier of the 6 feet rule.

Wagner’s daughter, MaKarleigh Kotema, 13, said she has watched the “Five Feet Apart” trailer “like, 15 million times.” For her, the appeal is all about the casting. She has a mad-crazy crush on Cole Sprouse, who stars as Jughead in “Riverdale” on the CW, and is known to another generation as Cody on “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.”

MaKarleigh defines her deep affections in just two words: “He’s cute!”

 

CF treatment

Every three months of her life, MaKarleigh and her mom have made the trek from Louisville to Akron Children’s Hospital for regular treatments.

MaKarleigh, a seventh-grader at Louisville Middle School, takes three pills before breakfast, three pills at lunch, three at dinner and three before any snacks. At home, she has a therapy vest that she wears two to three times a day, which compresses her lungs and helps her cough out bacteria, and a breathing machine.

CF is a genetic disease that affects the lungs and pancreas.

“It causes many of the secretions in the body to be thicker than they should be,” said Dr. Gregory Omlor, a pediatric pulmonologist at Akron Children’s Hospital and director of the Lewis H. Walker CF Center.

“In your lungs, the mucus is very thick, so the bacteria that would normally be coughed out stays in the lungs and causes chronic infection. Patients also don’t absorb their food well because of thick secretions in the pancreas, so [the medications] replace their enzymes before they eat their meal.”

The hospital treats about 120 pediatric patients, from newborns to age 17, and another 120 adults, their oldest being 64.

Omlor said that a fairly new treatment method called CFTR Modulators has already increased the median survival age from 42 to 47 years.

Because CF patients can infect each other, extensive protocols are followed at the hospital to keep patients separated. At Akron Children’s, which is an accredited CF center, patients are treated by a team that includes doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, genetic counselors, social workers and nutritionists.

“Years ago, they used to have camps where all of the kids could hang out together and share hospital rooms, but now they are more socially isolated,” said Betsy Bryson, a pediatric nurse practitioner at ACH who has worked with CF patients for 38 years.

A major study in 2003 set guidelines for infection prevention, which were updated in 2013. Initially, staying 4 feet apart was suggested. It was later extended to 6 feet.

“Because of social media, there are other ways for patients to connect,” Bryson said. “Now we have blogs and video chats and Facebook. There are support groups all over the country.”

 

Tearjerker

“Five Feet Apart” is being billed as a tearjerker, with echoes of the romantic weeper “The Fault in Our Stars” from 2014. Richardson stars as Stella, a high school girl in the hospital awaiting a lung transplant.

She is steadfast about her meds and the rules, which is diametrically opposed to handsome bad boy Will (Sprouse), who is also on her ward and is more cavalier about his treatment regimen. Despite their differences, the two CF patients fall for each other and, well, perhaps don't remain 6 feet apart.

It is unclear how accurate “Five Feet Apart” will be in portraying the CF world. I reached out to the movie’s producer, CBS Films, and requested an interview with director Justin Baldoni, or writers Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis.

Their media representative said in an email that they did not have “anyone to speak on behalf of the film” and added that “people are questioning the medical accuracy and we just want to make sure everyone knows this a work of fiction and not a documentary. … While several members of the CF community were involved in development and production, including a retired CF nurse who was on set, we have always deferred to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation for any/all medical related inquiries.”

To that end, the CFF is offering information at www.cff.org/fivefeetapart.

Bryson is planning to see the film. “As with any movie, there will probably be some things that are correct and some that aren’t exactly right," she said. "Whenever you watch a ‘Chicago Med,’ or ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ or any of those shows, as a medical person, I’m thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”

Wagner is not sure when she and her daughter will see the movie. They could wait until it is on DVD, or streaming, though they don’t have cable TV.

“MaKarleigh is the youngest of eight, so we talked about having all the siblings go so they could serve as a kind of barrier around her in the theater,” Wagner explained during a recent interview at Children's Hospital.

“She would definitely wear her CF shirt, and I also thought maybe I could go in before the showing and just ask the audience, ‘Does anyone here have CF?’ ”

Wagner has four biological children and four adopted children, ranging in age from 13 to 29. She has served as a foster parent and adoptive mother to children who are considered “medically fragile.” MaKarleigh, who turns 14 on March 30, was adopted when she was 3.

“When she first told me about ‘Five Feet Apart,’ we had never even heard about a movie dealing with cystic fibrosis," Wagner said. “And it was coming out in March. We were so excited because — it’s her birthday, it’s her heartthrob, it’s a story about her life.”

When she isn’t in school, MaKarleigh likes to hang out at her best friend’s house, play on her phone and take horseback-riding lessons. Whenever the movie or her crush are mentioned, a big, broad grin breaks free.

“It’s hard not to smile,” she explains, “when someone’s talking about Cole Sprouse.”

 

Clint O’Connor covers pop culture. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or coconnor@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies.