As the news media and Twitter have shown us, lots of people around the country are eager to return to public gatherings despite many of the health concerns that they bring. It’s clear that spending two months in quarantine with little-to-no human contact has resulted in many people going stir-crazy, and created a need for those people to be able to gather together in public once again. However, we’ve also seen a backlash to the pictures and videos found on Twitter, and in local and national news broadcasts, of people recklessly ignoring social distancing guidelines. On one hand there is a clear demand for people to return to a sense of normalcy, but on the other hand there is still a shared anxiety over health and safety when it comes to reintroducing large public gatherings into society. One of the many industries attempting to navigate this dilemma is the movie theater industry.
As of now, only a very small number of states have allowed theaters to reopen. Most of the cinemas in those states—including all of the big chains—have remained closed, but a handful of the smaller theaters have decided to open their doors. While most of these theaters are showing older movies due to the lack of new Hollywood releases, AMC Theatres—the nation’s largest chain—has stated it will not reopen until there is new content to show. It has been known for a while now that the potential July 17 release date of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is the most important date for theater chains around the world. Many of the big chains are now hopeful that locations in the U.S. and Europe will be able to reopen with new films to show around July/August. Although Tenet is still seen as the most important film in all of this because of its scope, blockbuster appeal, and the popularity of Nolan—Solstice Theaters actually recently moved up the release date of their new Russell Crowe led thriller Unhinged to July 1.
In order to get an idea of whether or not larger theaters around the world will succeed once they are allowed to reopen, I think it is important to take a look at how some of those smaller theaters that have reopened are doing. Currently, about 3% of indoor theaters in America are open. Many of the theater owners who decided to reopen felt they had no other choice. Robert Jones, who owns and operates Center Cinemas in Vinita, Oklahoma, was quoted in Variety saying “I’m just trying to survive. When we closed, no money was coming in, but the bills were still adding up. I couldn’t continue to stay closed and have a future.” His current attendance is only about 25% of what it usually is at this time though. Pretty much all of the theaters currently open in America are seeing similar low numbers due to limited capacities, a lack of new releases, and health concerns. Some theaters have decided to slash ticket prices to as low as $1, but most are still seeing a 70% to 80% decline in business from what they are used to. Clearly, people are not yet rushing to go back to a theater to sit in a crowd full of strangers.
Even before the discouraging data from the few theaters that are currently open was released, the entertainment industry knew that reintroducing their product to the masses was going to be difficult. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just “reopen your theater and people will start to show up again.” Not only do proper health guidelines need to be enforced and followed, moviegoers have to be willing to accept the risks that come with taking a trip to the cinema right now. According to a mid-May survey of about 1,000 people conducted by Performance Research along with Full Circle Research Co., theaters have a difficult road ahead of them. The results showed that when given a choice between seeing a new release at home or in a theater if both were available today, 70% said they are more likely to watch from home, while just 13% said they are more likely to watch at a local theater. Also, 37% of respondents said they plan on attending a theater less often when they reopen and 10% said they may never go again. These results speak not only to the struggles theaters will have instantly upon reopening, but also to the negative long term effects this pandemic could have on the theater industry. While this survey paints a potentially grim picture for the future of cinemas around the globe, a more recent poll conducted by Atom tickets found some good news for theater owners.
Atom conducted a survey of 1,500 people and found that 25% would go to a theater immediately upon reopening, 34% would feel comfortable returning within a month, and 18% would do so within two months. This means that 77% of respondents would feel comfortable sitting in a movie theater within just two months of them reopening to the public. In contrast to the 10% of people who said they may never go to a theater again in the Performance Research survey, just 1% said they would never go again in the survey done by Atom. Atom’s survey also found that digital tickets, spaced seating, preordering concessions, and increased sanitary measures are among the most important steps cinemas need to take in order for people to feel comfortable enough to return. Although there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the success movie theaters will see once they reopen, Atom’s survey at least shows us that there are many people eager to return to cinemas once it is safe to do so.
It’s important to note that studios are not going to release their films if they think people won’t show up to the theater. As somebody eagerly anticipating the return of cinemas to society, I was encouraged by Warner Bros. decision to release the second trailer for Tenet and include the words “Coming To Theaters” at the end of it. It’s safe to assume that Warner Bros. are putting a lot of thought into the decisions they make, and they’re obviously not going to spend money on marketing their latest blockbuster if they don’t think people are going to show up to a theater to see it. Therefore, it’s fair to presume that Warner Bros. at least feels somewhat confident that Tenet will be able to draw crowds as early as late July if theaters are in fact open. Personally, I wouldn’t describe myself as confident, but perhaps cautiously optimistic. I think theaters are going to face a lot of struggles once they reopen, but I also believe that—if handled properly—movie theaters are amongst the places people will feel most comfortable returning to. There is less human-to-human interaction and shared surfaces in a movie theater, as there are in a bar or a restaurant. Seemingly, theaters could be a great place for people to go in order to get that sense of normalcy they’re looking for, while also feeling safe.
As we wait for theaters to eventually reopen, I figured I would share the top five films I am most looking forward to seeing in theaters during the second half of 2020, if we do in fact get to return to cinemas. Because many release dates are still up-in-the-air with Hollywood on pause at the moment, this list is only going to include films that at least have a potential release date attached to their name.
5. Wonder Woman 1984 (Dir. Patty Jenkins), *Potential* Release Date: Aug. 12
With Marvel’s The Eternals being pushed back to 2021, Wonder Woman 1984 and Black Widow (Nov. 6) are the two biggest superhero releases left for 2020. As of now, this film is hoping to find success on Aug. 12 once Tenet kicks off the truncated summer movie season. I’m not sure if that release date is realistic, but as a fan of the first Wonder Woman film, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what Patty Jenkins was able to do with the sequel.
4. Tenet (Dir. Christopher Nolan), *Potential* Release Date: July 17
As I have noted, this is really the most important film for both Hollywood and the movie theater industry right now. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Warner Bros. and Nolan have refused to move off their July 17 release date. Although I am wary of the health risks involved, several months without a theater experience have led to a strong desire to see this film in theaters whenever it comes around.
3. Dune (Dir. Denis Villeneuve), *Potential* Release Date: Dec. 18
Hopefully by the time we get to December, we’ll have movie theaters up and running around the globe. There is no guarantee of this, but I’m still optimistic that I’ll get to see Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s famed science-fiction novel on the big screen. While I’m not totally sure how this film will turn out in terms of quality, I’m confident it will be one of the most talked about movies of the year.
2. No Time to Die (Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga), *Potential* Release Date: Nov. 25
The 25th installment in the Bond franchise, which was originally supposed to be released in April, was one of the first major studio films to see their release date pushed back. Cary Fukunaga’s No Time to Die is now set for a late-November release date, which—much like Dune—should seemingly be safe. No Time to Die feels like the kind of exciting blockbuster that all movie fans are missing right now as we enter the time of year that usually gives us a summer movie season.
1. The French Dispatch (Dir. Wes Anderson), *Potential* Release Date: Oct. 16
Wes Anderson’s newest film was initially supposed to be released on July 24, but then got delayed to the heart of award season with a new Oct. 16 release date. As Anderson is one of my favorite directors of all time, I have been greatly anticipating the release of The French Dispatch since the beginning of the year. I just hope that we get theaters up-and-running within the next two to three months so things are operating somewhat smoothly by the time Oct. 16 rolls around.