COVID-19 Hasn’t Killed The Movie Theater, But A Lot Of Changes Are Ahead

Here's everything you need to know about how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting Hollywood.

Like everything else on this beleaguered planet, the entertainment industry has seen its unfair share of COVID-19 damage. Productions and live events ground to a halt in mid-March, leaving countless people out of work. Many expensive films were shelved indefinitely. Broadcast networks have scrambled to fill programming holes in their fall lineups. Anticipating billions in lost revenue, Hollywood looked to Congress for financial aid. Projects that resume filming, like “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “Jurassic World: Dominion,” must administer repeated coronavirus tests and adopt costly safety protocols.

Despite all those handicaps, movies will outlive the pandemic. What’s less certain is how the theaters that exhibit them will fare.

The traditional theatrical business was facing hurdles before COVID-19 hit, thanks in large part to the ever-expanding streaming explosion. Last year, North American ticket sales saw a 4% dip. Even if Hollywood studios make peace with steeper losses in 2020, individual theaters are sure to suffer. It has long been true that theaters earn most of their profits from concessions, putting venues that shuttered for months in jeopardy. AMC, the country’s largest chain, narrowly avoided bankruptcy last month. Cinemark CEO Mark Zoradi said he doesn’t expect the industry to return to normal until 2022. And while the coronavirus may have created a boom time for drive-ins with their built-in social distancing, independent theaters have been left praying that virtual screening options keep already vulnerable earnings afloat. 

That leaves several open-ended questions, including how the pandemic might alter long-term Hollywood economics. Addressing them is tricky when different regions of the United States are weathering different circumstances, but here’s what we know based on the information that’s currently available to the public.

When Will Movie Theaters Reopen? 

COVID-19 rates are still high in the U.S., but because some regions have managed to tamp down their numbers, certain theaters are reopening in August. AMC ― which faced a public-relations debacle in June when the company’s leadership said masks wouldn’t be required (they’re required now) ― opened more than 100 of its approximately 630 locations on Thursday with a reduced-ticket-price promotion. Alamo Drafthouse, the trendy dine-in franchise, returned in select locations on Friday and will reportedly show Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated “Tenet” when it finally opens Sept. 3. (More on “Tenet” below.) But for now, those venues will go without income from California and New York, the two largest moviegoing markets, where the states’ COVID-19 regulations still prohibit theaters from reopening.

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in "Tenet."
John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in "Tenet."

Even If Theaters Can Reopen, Should They? 

On the one hand, many Americans feel stir-crazy after quarantining for so long, and movie theaters offer reliable escapism. Don’t we all miss the catharsis of laughing or crying with a roomful of strangers? Plus, if we don’t want the theatrical experience to endure further existential threats, these businesses need revenue as soon as possible. On the other hand, the seats in auditoriums tend to be close to one another, and patrons will have to remove their masks to consume the snacks that ensure theaters’ profitability. Even with concession-stand plexiglass and routine sanitation practices, there’s no way to guarantee the virus won’t be transmitted. 

“Going to see a movie in an indoor movie theater, it’s just about the last thing I would do right now,” epidemiologist Dr. Abdul El-Sayed told The A.V. Club. “From what we understand, the virus is transmitted through aerosolized droplets that come out of our mouths, oftentimes when we talk or when we laugh or when we sing. And so, being in a room for two hours with a bunch of folks who are laughing at a movie, and where air is not being circulated in an efficient way, and where you don’t know who has been in there before you, that’s really hazardous exposure.”

What Are Theaters Doing To Keep People Safe?

Every theater chain must decide for itself how to enforce coronavirus hygiene measures, and it’s impossible to generalize whether those measures are sufficient across the country.

AMC's reopening initiative includes cash-free concessions, hand-sanitizing stations, employee temperature checks and customer capacities capped at 40%. Regal Cinemas, which opened its first wave of locations on Friday, laid out similar strictures but set a maximum capacity of 50%. Masks will be mandatory, but customers can take them off to eat and drink while seated.

Alamo Drafthouse, whose top brass has lately seen a litany of allegations regarding sexual misconduct and corporate improprieties, is requiring patrons to place food orders before arriving. Upon purchasing tickets online, clientele must agree to the following message: “By visiting an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, you voluntary assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19, accept full responsibility for any injury to yourself or your child(ren), and release the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema from all claims or liabilities of any kind arising out of or related thereto.” 

How long any of these safeguards will last is unclear.

Will Anyone Go? 

We’ll find out soon enough, but in a May survey conducted by the analytics firm EDO, 75% of respondents said they’d be willing to return to theaters in late June or early July as long as safety procedures were established. 

Liu Yifei in "Mulan."
Liu Yifei in "Mulan."

Are There Any New Movies To See?

Some titles originally slated to hit the big screen between March and August have already been released via video-on-demand services (iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, cable systems) or streaming platforms (Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max), but others — especially potential blockbusters like “A Quiet Place Part II” and “No Time to Die” — held out for theaters. The one biggie bucking the trend is “Mulan,” which Disney postponed twice before opting to debut on Disney+ in September for $29.99.

That said, the next few weeks will be a mixed bag for functioning theaters. Many will round out their offerings with older films like “Back to the Future,” “Black Panther” and “Grease.” New releases include the aptly titled Russell Crowe revenge thriller “Unhinged,” the teen romance “Words on Bathroom Walls,” the RZA-directed heist drama “Cut Throat City,” Marvel’s long-delayed “New Mutants,” the Dev Patel comedy “The Personal History of David Copperfield” and the years-in-the-making sequel “Bill & Ted Face the Music.” None of those were expected to be tentpole events, so they present a sort of trial run for theaters before “Tenet” arrives. 

So What’s The Deal With ‘Tenet’? 

How much time do you have? 

Christopher Nolan is one of the few directors working today whose name alone secures a movie’s success. The plot of “Tenet” has been shrouded in secrecy, making it even more irresistible for anyone who devoured the twistiness of “Inception” and “Interstellar.” What we do know is that it’s a time-bending spy thriller starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki and frequent Nolan collaborator Michael Caine. (In a GQ cover story from March, even Pattinson struggled to describe the plot. An IndieWire review called it “bamboozling.”) It’s also Nolan’s most expensive non-Batman movie yet, leading to a soap opera of concern over its release strategy. Can it possibly live up to the hype?

Through the first few months of the pandemic, “Tenet” held on to its planned July 17 opening date. Nolan, an unremitting advocate for the theatrical experience, wanted his film to herald the return of moviegoing as we knew it. Other movies that cost roughly $200 million or more to make (“Fast 9,” “Black Widow,” “Wonder Woman 1984,” “No Time to Die”) got delayed by months, but “Tenet” kept its summer ambitions. That put distributor Warner Bros. in sticky territory: According to a Variety report, “Keeping Nolan happy, while keeping its investment safe, has required a deft balancing act.” 

In June, an overly optimistic Warner Bros. delayed the movie by two weeks, as if that might provide enough time to solve the problems caused by the virus. WB then shifted “Tenet” by another two weeks before devising an atypical approach for such a spoiler-sensitive enterprise meant to have a concurrent global launch: The movie would first open in relatively coronavirus-safe foreign territories in late August, with a domestic rollout beginning Sept. 3. New York City and Los Angeles probably won’t be able to operate theaters even then, so North American grosses will inevitably still come up short.

Characters voiced by Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake in "Trolls World Tour."
Characters voiced by Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake in "Trolls World Tour."

Could This Year’s Video-On-Demand Model Become More Of A Norm?

Moviegoing as a concept won’t die of COVID-19, but we already know some things will be different in a post-coronavirus world. Why? “Trolls World Tour,” for one. 

That’s right, “Trolls World Tour.” Universal Pictures released the animated sequel on VOD in April, charging $19.99. In three weeks, the company reportedly reaped almost $100 million in revenue. Because studios net more profit from digital rentals than big-screen ticket sales, that total outpaced Universal’s entire earnings for 2016’s original “Trolls.” Even with the caveat that $20 is a steal compared to a family trip to the multiplex, it was an informative experiment. As a result, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell told The Wall Street Journal that future Universal releases would premiere digitally the same day they open theatrically — a strict no-no within the industry.

Shell’s comments set off a firestorm. For years, theaters have maintained a 90-day exclusivity window before movies become available for home viewing. Abbreviating or nullifying that agreement jeopardizes the health of those theaters, which arrange collective deals through the National Association of Theater Owners. When Shell implied that Universal would ignore the 90-day window, AMC abruptly announced that it would no longer license the distributor’s movies. That left one of America’s biggest studios — Universal owns the lucrative “Fast and Furious” and “Jurassic World” franchises and has a deal with Jordan Peele’s production company — at war with America’s biggest multiplex chain. And if Universal isn’t going to honor the 90 days, why should anyone else?

Amid worries from industry spectators, Universal and AMC commenced negotiations to sort out their tiff. After all, they need each other to thrive. In July, the two companies announced a historic compromise: AMC will allow Universal’s movies to premiere on VOD after 17 days (at $19.99 a pop) and will share some of the digital profits. That blueprint will most benefit mid-budget films — think “Queen & Slim,” “Good Boys” and “Ma,” to name a few recent Universal titles — that have struggled to attract robust theatrical audiences in a superhero-monopolized era. 

The question now is whether rival studios like Paramount, Sony, Lionsgate and Warner Bros. will attempt to strike the same deal. Either way, movie distribution will look slightly different after the pandemic ends, which could affect what studios decide to greenlight and how those movies get marketed. Perhaps the changes will be a boon for original stories that hope to build word of mouth in theaters and premiere digitally a mere three weeks later. The major studios have more or less deemed non-franchise fare a financial risk, so this new model could offer some leeway for projects that can’t compete against the splashiest juggernauts. 

Still, don’t expect cataclysmic changes just yet. Take it from Rich Gelfond, the CEO of IMAX: “I think the fact that a couple of movies moved to streaming has created this narrative that a lot of movies are going to go to streaming, and in the case of blockbusters I just don’t believe that to be true. ... I know it’s popular to say the world is forever changed, but I don’t think that 100 years of history gets changed in five months. Just like people have kitchens in their houses, they like going to restaurants. Just because people have a streaming service, I think they’re still going to want to go to the movies.”

Bong Joon Ho with two of his Oscars for "Parasite" at the 2020 Academy Awards.
Bong Joon Ho with two of his Oscars for "Parasite" at the 2020 Academy Awards.

What About Awards Season? 

Awards season kicks off around Labor Day with the holy trinity of film festivals: Telluride, Venice and Toronto, all of which serve as springboards for top Oscar contenders. But Telluride has been canceled altogether this year, and Venice and Toronto are planning scaled-back editions in September. Without the familiar fanfare, the entire season will look different. 

Beyond that, the Oscars made a critical change to this year’s eligibility rules to accommodate months of theatrical dormancy. Traditionally, movies that open in theaters before Dec. 31 qualify for the awards. But streaming titles will now be eligible, too, as long as they’d initially intended a theatrical bow, and the Dec. 31 cutoff has been pushed to Feb. 28. That means, for example, that Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island” is eligible but Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Old Guard” isn’t because the latter was always a Netflix exclusive.

Every major awards show — the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards — will occur two months later than usual. Instead of late February, the Oscars will air April 25, buying more time to make an in-person ceremony possible.

 

Illustration by Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

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