After months of being shuttered, Texas movie theater chain Alamo Drafthouse published a blog post from founder Tim League last month detailing the company’s new coronavirus safety protocols, including mandatory masks and employee temperature checks. The maverick exhibitor’s message to nervous moviegoers was that its theaters would be “safer than a supermarket.”
Whether customers believe that’s true will have a major effect on the movie industry’s return from the COVID-19 pandemic.
About 1,300 domestic movie houses are currently open, including 293 drive-ins, according to data firm Comscore. But the vast majority of the country’s nearly 5,550 indoor theaters remain shuttered, and the recent surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in multiple states has postponed what was already expected to be a slow recovery. While drive-ins are doing brisk business, indoor theaters are struggling to draw audiences because of a lack of new Hollywood films.
“Twenty days ago, I would’ve said we’re on track,” said David A. Gross, head of movie consultancy Franchise Entertainment Research. “But this latest spike is just awful.”
Studios, meanwhile, are dealing with their own dilemma of when they can start safely releasing blockbusters again.
Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” originally expected to open July 17, has been delayed until Aug. 12. Walt Disney Co.’s “Mulan” was pushed from July 24 to Aug. 21. Once those releases were postponed, theater chains adjusted their own schedules. AMC Theatres, the world’s largest cinema chain, delayed plans to open its doors until July 30, after previously targeting July 15. And given the current rise in cases, there’s no guarantee those new dates will stick.
The sustained closures are taking a huge bite out of the theatrical movie business, effectively quashing the traditional summer box office season that normally accounts for 40% of annual ticket sales. Wedbush Securities estimates that the North American box office will total $4.4 billion in 2020, down 61% from last year. (In 2019, box office revenue was $11.4 billion, a 4% dip from the prior year.)
“Our whole industry is caught in the middle right now,” said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution at Paramount Pictures, which plans to release “A Quiet Place Part II” in early September.
John Fithian, president and chief executive of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners (NATO), said his organization has been encouraging the studios to start releasing their big movies next month, though some U.S. states and localities, including Los Angeles and New York, remain in a state of uncertainty.
The “vast majority” of global markets will be open in time for the current release dates for Hollywood movies, he said. Other countries, he noted, have been more effective than the U.S. in controlling the virus, and for a movie like “Tenet,” two-thirds of the box office is expected to be international.
Furthermore, if studios don’t start releasing new movies soon, it could do lasting damage to the industry, he said.
“If the answer is, ‘We’re going to wait until 100% of theaters are open, we’re not going to be there until a year from now when there’s a vaccine,” Fithian said. “This is existential for the movie theater industry. If we go a year without new movies, it’s over.”
Releasing a big movie during a pandemic will be risky, especially for the first major titles to hit theaters. Nonetheless, Nolan, an ardent supporter of theatrical exhibition, and film studio Warner Bros. have remained determined to chart a successful theatrical release for “Tenet.”
“We see this as an important time to work with exhibitors to figure out how to be healthy and responsible at the same time,” said Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros. Pictures’ president of domestic distribution. “We’re being smart about it.”
Studios say they’re ready to release films when health officials give the green light. The first wide-release picture to hit theaters will be the Russell Crowe thriller “Unhinged,” expected to debut July 31. After that, Sony Pictures is set to unveil the romantic comedy “The Broken Hearts Gallery” on Aug. 7. Neither is expected to gross significant numbers compared to blockbusters, but they will provide the first true tests of audiences’ comfort level.
“Once theaters can open safely, there’s plenty of product,” said Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony’s motion picture group. “It’s not a chicken-and-egg situation, it’s a safety issue.”
For the theaters, reopening can’t come soon enough. The largest chains _ AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas _ remain shuttered. Plano, Texas-based Cinemark opened a handful of theaters in the Dallas-Fort Worth area but will not open most of its 345-theater U.S. circuit until July 24.
Some smaller chains that tried to open early by showing recent releases, like the Vin Diesel action thriller “Bloodshot” and nostalgic classics including “Jaws,” have struggled to make ends meet with those titles. What’s worse, exhibitors’ expenses have increased with the introduction of new sanitation equipment, protective gear and cleaning protocols.