The current pandemic is going to have a massive impact on how people live their lives. It is also going to shape the way that studios release content and people watch movies. So, what about the cinemas themselves? What happens to movie theaters when they inevitably reopen?
There are obvious logistical concerns facing cinemas when they reopen. The most pressing question is what cinemas will show. Most of the major studios have shifted blockbuster releases into next year or even left them undated. A couple of major films like Trolls World Tour and Greyhound have bypassed cinemas entirely and gone straight to video on demand. This is a major problem for cinemas, given how much of the industry is driven by blockbuster releases.
The box office reports for the past few months have been interesting to watch, acknowledging that only a handful of studios are still reporting returns. The box office winners since March have included curiosities like The Wretched, savvy publicity stunts for low-budget independent movies like Unsubscribe, and nostalgic re-releases like Jurassic Park or The Empire Strikes Back. The figures that these movies are generating, even on a per-theater basis, are not enough to sustain cinemas.
There have been suggestions studios might look at moving past the day-and-date release model that has become increasingly common over the past few decades, the scheduling of synchronized global releases. As recently as the 1990s, it was not uncommon for major films to have staggered releases in international markets, opening in Europe and Asia months or even years after they premiered in the United States.
America’s difficulty controlling this pandemic relative to European and Asian countries has reportedly forced studios to look at reversing that dynamic. There are whispers that cinemas in France, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Ireland have been told to prepare for a possible late August rollout of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. This has in part been prompted by the strong Asian box office returns for Peninsula, the sequel to Train to Busan.
Of course, there will be intrinsic resistance to this move. The industry has pushed towards that synchronized model for a number of reasons, some as mundane as spoiler-phobia (or perhaps fear of word of mouth) in the social media age and some more serious like the increasing risk of piracy. In a climate where studios are increasingly susceptible to social media backlash, it is interesting how online fandoms might react to a gap of several months for an anticipated release.
Still, assuming that there is new content that cinemas can screen, will audiences want to return? After all, the pandemic has demonstrated that audiences can replicate a significant portion of the theatrical experience at home. This is literally the case with Hamilton, where the theatricality is the point. The true blockbuster weekends this year have been for streaming services – Palm Springs on Hulu, Hamilton on Disney+, Greyhound for Apple TV. Netflix subscriptions are soaring.
There are promising reports from markets where cinemas have reopened. China reported sellout performances on opening day, for both local and international performances. Boutique theaters here in Ireland are selling out, perhaps based on brand loyalty and smaller screen sizes. Anecdotally, multiplexes are having a tougher time. It is touch and go, particularly in markets like the United States, where cinema chains like AMC were financially precarious before the pandemic.
These issues aside, cinemas face sizable challenges in reopening in a manner that will be profitable. Cinemas have to share profits with distributors, often 50-50, although cinemas take smaller shares on bigger movies. The constraints imposed by social distancing will make it hard for cinemas to fill enough seats to make screenings profitable. American cinema-owners have stated that “it just isn’t worth showing a movie” to the volume of attendees that they can safely accommodate.
Talking to Irish cinema programmers before reopening, they stated the best hope for profitability was that people would come to cinemas in groups – families, friends, even date nights – so that patrons could be clustered together. This raises interesting questions about cinema as a group activity. Coming out of lockdown, there is plenty of evidence that people long to socialize at hotels and restaurants, but will that carry over to cinemas?
Masks present their own challenges, even aside from the weird culture war brewing over whether they should be mandatory or optional. If patrons are wearing masks – whether by choice or in accordance with corporate or governmental policy – they will be unable to consume popcorn and it will be difficult to drink through a straw. Given how much the cinema industry relies on concession sales, this is a legitimate concern about any attempt to open cinemas before a vaccine is distributed.
I’m going to break from the usual format of my writing for The Escapist and write briefly in the first-person. Readers may be aware that I am based in Ireland, which may explain my unlikely affinity for the work of Pierce Brosnan. Ireland has begun the process of reopening, including the reopening of cinemas. As research for this piece, I made a trip to a cinema screening to get a sense of what the new normal might look like for the foreseeable future.
This is only the Irish experience but is an interesting model. All of the requisite safety procedures had been followed. Patrons were encouraged to book and buy food online, or – failing that – using contactless payment. Barriers separated staff at the counters from customers. The staff were friendly and helpful and had been properly trained on health and safety procedures. Hand sanitizer was available. Spaces of two meters were clearly delineated on the ground.
These markings were largely unnecessary. The cinema that I visited is in a large shopping center servicing the second-largest town in the country. The center was bustling. The cinema was quiet. People were queuing to get into restaurants and pharmacies, but the cinema staff that I spoke to confirmed that footfall had been modest since reopening. Reflecting that desire to attract groups, the cinema’s schedule was focused on family films. I attended a screening of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
The only other patrons were two young families. Parents wore masks; children, needing to munch on concessions, did not. In a sweet little detail, one of the parents had decided to take his two young children on their first cinema trip at a time that he thought cinemas would be quiet – so as to minimize the risk of disturbing other patrons. I can report that the children at that screening of Into the Spider-Verse were better behaved than many adults I have seen at other screenings.
That said, even in a small screening, it felt good to be back at the cinema. Part of this is undoubtedly down to the savvy programming choice of Into the Spider-Verse. The children receiving their first cinematic experience were captivated by the big screen with the lights down, gasping at the dynamic action sequences, laughing at the well-timed humor, crying at the big emotional beats. Into the Spider-Verse is one of the best films of the decade and worthy of a child’s first cinema trip.
After the screening, I took a moment to reflect. As a movie critic, I have actually watched more movies during the pandemic than I did in the months leading up to it. Some were terrible. Some were great. Some were even transcendental. However, there is a marked difference between watching a film in a room alone (or even with family and friends) and watching it with an audience (however small) in a cinema. Not that one is inherently superior to the other, but they are different.
Maybe this comes from being a critic. I watch and dissect movies from my own perspective, so there’s something refreshing getting to experience a film as magical as Into the Spider-Verse through the eyes of strangers – to process it through the reactions of those who presumably don’t write about film for a living, don’t follow movie news in depth, and just want to be entertained. I might have criticisms of Endgame, but I remember the joy of watching it with audiences just reacting to it.
I don’t know what the future holds for cinemas. I don’t think even cinemas themselves know that. Still, the trip was illustrative. It was at once familiar and alien. The underlying mechanics weren’t radically different, outside of minimizing human contact and warnings to maintain social distance. However, the context had changed. It was obviously not the same as it was the last time I’d been in a cinema, on the night lockdown was declared, but it wasn’t as different as I’d worried it would be.
To extrapolate from a single experience in one particular country in an unprecedented situation, it seems likely that cinema screenings after the coronavirus will likely be smaller, quieter, and more cautious than they were before. However, they will still be cinemas.