Major Movie Theater Chains Go Dark, As Life Grinds To A Halt Amid Coronavirus

Hollywood studios are starting to make their theatrical releases available on-demand to stem the economic fallout.

As the coronavirus pandemic worsens and the number of COVID-19 cases skyrockets, much of life across the U.S. is grinding to a halt, especially as cultural institutions and public gathering places are shuttering in order to slow the spread of the outbreak and put fewer people at risk.

The two largest movie theater chains in the U.S., AMC and Regal, said Monday night that they would close all of their locations effective Tuesday. Combined, the chains operate more than 1,100 movie theaters in the U.S. and Canada.

The mass closures were all but inevitable after the mayors of both New York City and Los Angeles ordered most nonessential businesses, including movie theaters, to cease operations. Across the U.S., many state and municipal leaders have strongly recommended people avoid gatherings to slow the spread of the virus.

Regal said Monday that its locations will close until further notice, and AMC said its theaters would not reopen for six to 12 weeks.

In a sign the federal government is taking the pandemic much more seriously than it did previously, President Donald Trump and his coronavirus task force on Monday advised all Americans to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people until at least the end of the month.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended restricting gatherings of 50 or more people for at least the next eight weeks, including cultural venues.

An empty AMC movie theater lobby in New York on Monday night.
An empty AMC movie theater lobby in New York on Monday night.
AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura

In response to the economic fallout and audiences seeking alternate entertainment options, a growing number of Hollywood studios are taking the unprecedented step of making their current theatrical releases available in homes.

Universal Pictures said Monday its current film releases — “The Invisible Man,” “The Hunt” and “Emma” — will be available to rent on major on-demand services like iTunes, Amazon Prime and YouTube starting Friday.

“Rather than delaying these films or releasing them into a challenged distribution landscape, we wanted to provide an option for people to view these titles in the home that is both accessible and affordable,” NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell said in a statement. “We hope and believe that people will still go to the movies in theaters where available, but we understand that for people in different areas of the world that is increasingly becoming less possible.”

Following Universal’s announcement, Warner Bros. said “Birds of Prey” would be available for purchase on March 24 and for rental by early April. The “Suicide Squad” spinoff starring Margot Robbie, which was released in theaters last month, had still been playing in theaters as of Monday.

DreamWorks Animation’s “Trolls World Tour” is set to go on-demand on April 10, the day it is slated to open in theaters — though given the CDC guidance, it’s likely movie theaters may still be closed then.

More studios might also begin putting new movies on streaming services earlier than anticipated — like Disney, which made “Frozen 2” available on Disney Plus on Sunday, several months ahead of its planned home release date.

Movie theaters, fearing the loss in box-office profits, have bristled at the industry’s prior attempts to make theatrical releases available at home on the same day of theatrical release, or to shorten the period between a film’s theatrical release and its availability on DVD, on-demand and/or streaming services.

But Hollywood, like many industries, is facing massive economic fallout due to the pandemic. Last weekend’s U.S. box office numbers were the worst in almost 20 years. Countries across Europe and Asia have shut down movie theaters, studios and distributors have postponed most theatrical releases indefinitely, and many ongoing projects have halted production. Thousands of entertainment industry employees are out of work.

On Monday night, Canada’s largest movie theater chain, Cineplex, said it would also close. In the U.K., Cineworld and Picturehouse, owned by Regal, and Odéon, owned by AMC, are also shutting down, the companies announced Tuesday morning.

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