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Can Cinemas Survive?

The pandemic has altered our lives for the foreseeable future. We have all adapted and in the process have created a new normal.  Before leaving our houses, we now check to ensure that we have a mask and hand sanitizer. We hesitate before going to places that lack outdoor seating or that don’t limit capacity. Many businesses have attempted to return to  post-pandemic operations, and sadly a lot of them have failed. Heartbreakingly, many movie theaters fall into that category. 

In this week’s blog, we take a look at the status of movie theaters as well as alternative ways to see some of our most beloved films. As always, Film Connx is a source of valuable information on subjects that matter most to the film community. Enjoy!

The Situation

Earlier this year, movie theaters were unceremoniously shuttered, with no reopening date in sight. We have seen them slowly reopen with new guidelines, including mask requirements, new air filtration systems, constant sanitation and wipe downs and reduced ticket and concession prices. In response, some studios have featured big blockbuster films such as Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in order to drive more people to view the film in person.  Although Tenet generated 20 million in its first weekend, many Americans are still too afraid to return to cinemas.

Victor J. Blue / Getty Images file

Movie theaters are suffering the consequences of audiences’ reticence to return. Just this week, Regal Cinemas announced that  it  was temporarily closing all 563 U.S. theaters and  putting 40,000 employees out of work. It is not alone: over the summer, AMC was close to filing for bankruptcy due to Coronavirus, and many arthouse cinemas permanently closed due to insufficient funds. Los Angeles Times reported that on Wall Street, AMC fell 10%, Marcus Corp. fell 8%, and Cinemark fell to a whopping 16%. 

With such huge losses, dozens of influential filmmakers joined the National Association of Theatre Owners, the Directors Guild of America, and the Motion Picture Association to urge Congress to provide assistance for struggling theater owners impacted by Coronavirus. The coalition stated without funding, many theaters will not survive this pandemic. Adding insult to injury, studios’ decisions to delay many highly anticipated films, such as The Batman, Wonder Woman 1984, James Bond: No Time to Die, and Dune, until 2021 might ironically hasten their demise.  So, what will the future entail?

The Future

As discussed in one of our previous blogs, drive-in movie theaters are a viable alternative to attending a traditional movie theater. Although some drive-ins are not fiscally sound, they allow for similar capacity as a traditional theater experience, and can increase their monetary value by increasing ticket and concession prices to match theaters. Drive-ins have helped to sustain the theater industry and are likely to continue increasing their market share, since audiences are more comfortable socially distancing in their vehicles than participating in an enclosed theatrical experience.

Other changes that are likely in cinema’s future: theaters maintaining ticket sales and commissions at the same price, and limits on the number of moviegoers per screening. Venice Film Festival implemented both of these methods – audience sizes were strategically smaller, and the festival included additional simultaneous screenings of films. This approach may help theater owners to convince audiences to return to in-person screenings, particularly  if sanitization and social distancing are taken seriously. 

 
The last option, and the most bittersweet, is to get rid of theaters and replace the theatrical experience with streaming. Many Americans today find themselves waiting until films go to streaming services to watch, claiming that it is cheaper to wait than it is to spend $15 per person at a theater.  We saw this with the highly anticipated release of Mulan that bypassed theaters and went straight to streaming on Disney+. However, the results were disappointing: the film generated much less than expected, even with streaming.  What isn’t known is if this lackluster performance was due to pandemic circumstances, its high price point, or to the controversial news surrounding the film and its relations to the Chinese government.
 
All of these options have their pros and cons. One thing is sure: Hollywood is not giving up on the theatrical experience. In its letter addressed to Congress the aforementioned coalition posited: “Cinemas are an essential industry that represents the best that American talent and creativity have to offer…the movie-going experience is central to American life. Theaters are great unifiers where our nation’s most talented storytellers showcase their cinematic accomplishments.” That statement rings true, and we sincerely hope to see theaters survive these trying times.

Thoughts

Variety

As members of the film community, we understand what the magic of a theatrical experience gives to its audience. Before many of us even thought about getting into this business, we felt inspired by the content and we saw the potential to be something bigger than ourselves. Not having that theatrical experience anymore would be heartbreaking for us and to future filmmakers whose brilliant content we have yet to watch.

The future of film is not dead and we as industry professionals and advocates should everything in our power to make sure that cinema survives.

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