It seems as if right after Warner Bros. announced they’d be pushing back the release date of the film that was supposedly going to reopen cinemas, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, theater companies began announcing plans to restore the theatrical experience. In fact, the three biggest theater chains in America have all announced plans to reopen their theaters in July. Right after the Tenet announcement, Regal Theaters announced plans to reopen all of their 564 North American locations by July 10. Around this same time, Cinemark reported that they were planning to open all of their 344 theaters by the same date. But up until yesterday, we still hadn’t heard from the nation’s largest cinema chain, AMC. That all changed when AMC CEO Adam Aron announced the company would be opening 450 of their locations on July 15, and the remaining 150 on July 24.
Obviously, AMC’s announcement was big news for studios and film fans who are still hoping to receive some sort of a summer movie season this year. I can’t imagine studios would feel comfortable releasing their blockbusters without the vast majority of theaters around the country being open to the public. And as AMC is the world’s largest exhibitor, their announcement was crucial. With AMC joining the likes of Cinemark and Regal, it seems virtually all theaters in America will be open in time for Disney’s Mulan to debut on July 24, followed by Tenet a week later.
It’s important to note that, upon reopening, theaters are not going to look the same as they did before the coronavirus pandemic. All theater companies have made it known that they will be implementing various safety measures, in an attempt to make going to the theater as safe as possible for patrons. These safety measures include seating capacity limitations, requiring guests to wear masks, sanitizing between showings, and implementing contact-less and cash-free concessions. Most of these measures were a part of the theater chain’s original announcements, except the mask requirement. Initially, AMC announced that they wouldn’t require all guests to wear masks, but quickly reversed course on that decision after public backlash. When it comes to the effectiveness of these safety measures in general, it’s hard for me to imagine theaters being able to guarantee a 100% risk-free environment in the current state of the pandemic. However, I do have faith that they will be able to create an experience that feels relatively safe for the film fans that do decide to take the risk that is going to a cinema.
That brings me to an important question. Will people actually show up when theaters open up next month? This is something I have been wondering for a while, and when Warner Bros. made the decision to push back Tenet‘s release date by two weeks, I started to get the feeling that studios were not very confident. That being said, I admittedly found Warner Bros. decision baffling from the moment that they announced it. This is because I genuinely had trouble understanding what an extra two weeks would do. If they weren’t comfortable with releasing the film on July 17, why were they so confident that a July 31 release would be fine? Despite my confusion towards their thinking, they have stated that they will not be moving their release date a second time. They are holding firm on July 31, and I guess they’re just going to have to hope people show up. I’m not so sure people will though.
One of the reasons I think studios and theaters may be in trouble, is because people have just gotten more and more comfortable with home-viewing experiences during quarantine. This was already something hurting the theater industry for years prior to the pandemic, but now it seems more threatening than ever. I have to imagine a lot of people aren’t going to be rushing back to cinemas once they open, since they’re more than comfortable with watching content in their homes. This is especially true given that there is still a lot of uncertainty about the safety of returning to normal life right now, and the fear of a second wave is prevalent throughout the country. Although there has been a rise in cities loosening restrictions across America, we have also been receiving news that cases are spiking in certain states. The day I’m writing this blog, Florida broke their record number of new daily cases with nearly 4,000. It’s also being reported that eight states are seeing their highest seven-day averages of new coronavirus cases per day since the crisis began. Clearly, there are a lot of people around the country who are going to see these numbers and oppose the idea of returning to a theater next month.
Another danger to the potential success of a 2020 summer movie season is the seating capacity limitations that all theaters will be implementing. This will not be an inconsequential thing. AMC made is known that, upon their initial reopening, their theaters will be limited to 30% capacity. This will gradually grow over time, but it’s been reported that full capacity may not be allowed until Thanksgiving. This could be a problem for theaters because a normal summer movie season thrives on groups of friends or families getting together to go see the newest blockbuster. That will not be something that is likely, or even possible, to take place with seating capacity limitations though. These limitations will actually encourage more single moviegoers and less groups, which could definitely hurt the total box office numbers.
Personally, I just do not see how a film like Tenet or Mulan can earn a profitable box office return in a time like this. Perhaps the studios have something in mind that we don’t know about yet, like a quick turnaround to VOD, but I still think they’re going to be disappointed on the returns they get from their films that were supposed to be their biggest moneymakers. Even though the decision to release a film in theaters in late July can be seen as a positive PR move, because their movie will be able to dominate the conversation due to a lack of competition, I don’t think it’s the best decision from a financial standpoint. Admittedly though, I’m excited that theaters are reopening, and I’m grateful that studios are giving us new content soon. However, I’m genuinely worried that theaters across the country are going to continue to struggle for months, or even years, after they reopen because of this.