Dark days inside the cinema business
Can Hollywood survive without theaters?
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Movie theaters will need more than popcorn to persuade audiences to catch the latest blockbuster this summer, said Kelly Gilblom and Angelina Rascouet at Bloomberg. Cinemas are among the last businesses to reopen in the United States and Europe, and with good reason: Plenty of customers remain skeptical that it's "safe to sit in a room with strangers for two hours during a pandemic." But the largest chains, AMC, Regal, and Cinemark, are forging ahead with plans to reopen nationwide by mid-July. It's already proving tricky. AMC, the world's largest theater operator, "drew outcry when it said it wouldn't require masks" because the company "did not want to be drawn into a political controversy." AMC later reversed its policy. It's still capping seating at 30 percent, which will make chopping down its $10 billion net debt difficult. Meanwhile, the threat from streaming services has only grown during the crisis. AMC threatened to sever ties with Universal Pictures after the studio bragged about the $100 million it took in with the direct-to–home video release of the new movie Trolls World Tour. "If the public decides that going to the movies is unsafe," studios can go straight to video again.
You might need a social psychology degree to run a theater today, said Steven Zeitchik at The Washington Post. "More than airlines, retail, or even restaurants, movie theaters thrive on a sense of refuge," but that's tough to maintain when the slightest cough sets off a panic. Managers are grappling with how to tape off sections without "making it look like a crime scene." One theater in Las Vegas is putting chocolates on the seats and rose petals in the bathroom to "offset the thought of hospitals."
The movie business has been threatened before, said Bob Greene at The Wall Street Journal. In the Great Depression, theaters turned to giveaways of tableware, called "Dish days," to bring audiences in; they did it again when televisions arrived in the early 1950s. Still, today "feels more ominous." People have learned that "they can get along without going to the movies," while studios have the option of premiering their films on streaming services. Dishes are one thing, but "handing out masks and gloves at the door" isn't exactly great publicity.
We still don't really know if Hollywood can survive without theaters, said Owen Gleiberman at Variety. Trolls seems to have made a splash, but that's only because Universal chose to release its results. If Trolls had made only $40 million, "would the company have revealed that number?" Universal's second major on-demand release, The King of Staten Island, came out last week, and "I have no idea how many people have seen it." A live-action Disney classic and a Christopher Nolan–directed thriller are being touted as theater bellwethers, said Brooks Barnes and Nicole Sperling at The New York Times. The release of Nolan's Tenet was recently pushed back to the end of July, so Disney's Mulan on July 24 will "mark the return of megawatt Hollywood releases." It seems "the big studios are eager to begin releasing movies again," but none wants to be first to test the waters.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.