We’re all wondering when we can go back to the multiplex again, as spikes in coronavirus cases, AMC Theatres' financial struggles and pockets of cinemas letting audiences through their doors again have added to the mood of uncertainty around a grand reopening of movie theaters. But it also begs the question: What will they look like on the other side of COVID-19?
Theaters have been largely closed around the country since March, when the pandemic created chaos within the industry: Hollywood shuttered, new films shifted to streaming, and studios sent their biggest summer movies packing, either to the fall or all the way into 2021.
Now, with states slowly unveiling reopening phases and a couple of high-profile projects scheduled to hit theaters next month – Disney’s live-action “Mulan” (July 24) and Christopher Nolan’s thriller “Tenet” (July 31) – Americans are weighing when exactly they can (and should) safely go back just as change to a pop-culture pastime seems inevitable.
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“It's going to be an evolution, not a revolution, that happens in the way people consume movies in the theater,” says Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian.
Audiences may have “amazing memories” of going to the movies, but “those days may be gone for good if we don't get rid of this virus or if another iteration of this virus happens,” says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. “This one has scared people. And it was serious enough that it's going to change habits.”
Here’s what movie theaters might look like in the near and far future:
Goodbye, high-end amenities; hello, hand-sanitizer stations
Because everyone is starved for human interaction, a return to movie theaters “will automatically feel like a big, communal win,” says Kate Erbland, deputy film editor for IndieWire. However, that’s not possible without also taking into account aspects like masks, socially-distanced seating arrangements and “simmering worry over touching things.”
The push in recent years for cushier, reclining seats and expanded concessions will now shift toward moviegoers’ health concerns as more states begin to open theaters: California, for example, is now allowing theaters to be opened at 25% capacity while cinemas are in Phase 4 of New York’s reopening. AMC Entertainment, the largest movie theater chain in the U.S., says it plans to be fully open globally by July.
Bock thinks “personal preference” will be the status quo for the first couple months of reopening. “You want to take a risk or you don't, and that comes down to your personality, honestly.” Also important: world of mouth when it comes to cleanliness and following protocols. Bock points out one worry is an inconsistency among theaters when it comes to masks: “The No. 1 way to prevent (coronavirus) that we know of is a mask. And if they're not enforcing that, there's a huge swath of audiences that will just not go.”
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Rather than instituting any across-the-board health guidelines, the National Association of Theatre Owners is making sure theaters and chains develop their own protocols – in terms of spacing of seats, cleaning and disinfecting, and other concerns – and know what’s required, since state and local guidelines are different across the country.
Audiences “want to see that movie theaters are doing those things right,” says NATO vice president and chief communications officer Patrick Corcoran. “They don't want theaters saying, ‘Hey, it's safe, come back,’ because that's self-interested and they don't want to be sold on this. They want to be shown exactly what you're doing.”
Studios could own their own theater chains
At the same time AMC committed to opening theaters in July, they also reported a more than $2 billion quarterly loss due to pandemic closures. In a recent public filing, the chain warned that it may not survive the fallout, and there has been speculation it could be an acquisition target for Amazon.
With the Justice Department filing a motion late last year to terminate the 1948 Paramount Decrees (a landmark antitrust case which prohibited studios from owning their own theaters), there’s a chance – possibly sooner rather than later – that studios might be able to purchase chains in financial distress. Erbland suspects it’s “inevitable” that a streaming service or studio will get back into the exhibition business on a large scale.
“The tide is turning on what used to be verboten,” she says. “Movie theaters were already struggling long before COVID-19 shuttered many of them – some, it seems, even for good – and if a studio or streamer wants to come in and re-energize the market for people who still love going to the theater, that's a positive.”
Bock also sees it as a good thing, especially if studios are game for playing competitors’ films, too. Disney, for example, could have a “supercenter” theater featuring characters and merchandise in a theme-park atmosphere. “It’d be much like going to Disneyland where everybody's cheery and happy,” Bock says. “And if you go to a Lionsgate one, everybody's going be dressed like John Wick.”
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Drive-ins are back, baby! (Maybe for good)
After years of drive-ins going extinct like giant-screened dinosaurs, all of a sudden they’re the hottest ticket in their towns. “We could have never foreseen this just a few months ago,” Dergarabedian says. “Driving up, staying in a car and watching a movie really just dovetailed perfectly into social distancing.”
While they had their initial heyday in the 1950s and ‘60s, drive-ins are surging in popularity again now – with safety protocols in place, of course – thanks to the resurgence of old favorites, as well as pop-up venues where you can park cars and a huge screen, such as Hard Rock Stadium in Miami. “In places like Florida and across the Southwest and the South, there's the potential for these theaters to be open all year-round,” Bock says. “If you built a double-decker (drive-in) that was super high-end, people would freak out. It would be a thing.”
Erbland doesn’t predict a sudden explosion of new drive-in theaters, though she believes the reinvigorated ones “are here to stay. People have remembered how fun they are, and how they can still feel like a communal experience, and I think a certain amount of emotion will be attached to them going forward.”
An apocalytic scenario could spawn new experiences
So what happens to movie theaters in the worst-case scenario, where there are several COVID waves, a vaccine takes longer than expected or never happens, and streaming becomes the absolute go-to for movie lovers rather than a darkened screen with strangers? The cultural impact would be “devastating,” Dergarabedian says. “A world without the movie theater is not a world I'd want to live in.”
Erbland figures we’d still find the communal experience through “watch parties, more virtual premieres, more tweet-alongs, and maybe even more exploration of deeper back catalogs of very worthy films.” And Bock imagines theaters still existing, perhaps on a smaller scale with “theater pods where you and your family show up and just rent it all out."
“I don't know that they'll completely go away, but if they did, it’d just be in a weird apocalyptic sort of way. Guess what? I think that's the future anyway,” Bock says. “This just picks up the pace in terms of what eventually is going to happen to theaters, in terms of which films will play to wide audiences and are worth the risk vs. which films and which genres are not.”