Movie Theaters Were Made for a World That No Longer Exists

Movie theaters are set to reopen soon, but neither the safety of viewers, nor support for the film industry itself, can be guaranteed.

Select movie theaters plan to open August 20 with new operations in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

You may not know it, but certain American exhibitors are planning to open movie theaters starting August 20. If you didn’t know, it’s understandable, because announcements about theater openings have been sparse, contradictory, constantly changing, and not very widely publicized.

The latest word is that the AMC theater chain will open a hundred theaters and will feature fifteen-cent tickets to see old favorite blockbusters like Back to the Future, The Empire Strikes Back, Inception, and Black Panther in honor of the chain’s centennial, with the slogan “Movies in 2020 at 1920 prices.”

This will be followed by a rollout of AMC theater openings culminating in the September 3 premiere of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.

Previous to this announcement, the information provided on reopenings has been quite confusing. AMC representatives were publicizing an initial “multiphase reopening” starting July 15, which was then pushed back to July 30. Soon the date given on AMC websites became “mid-to-late August,” or  simply “opening soon.” Then it was August 21 — now it’s more like September 3.

Of course, it might simply be that you don’t care enough about theaters reopening to be maddened by all this chopping and changing. At a time when people have been largely confined to their homes during quarantine closures and got even more used to avidly watching media entertainment on TV and computer screens, the general public doesn’t seem to miss going to the movies much. Admittedly this observation is counter to the ballyhoo coming from theater chain representatives, such as Mooky Greidinger of Cineworld (parent company of Regal Entertainment):

We are thrilled to be back and encouraged by recent surveys that show that many people have missed going to the movie theater. With a strong slate confirmed for the coming weeks, including among others Tenet, Mulan, A Quiet Place Part II, Wonder Woman 1984, Black Widow, Bond, Soul, Top Gun Maverick, and many more, the entire Cineworld team remains committed to being “the best place to watch a movie.”

Notice how no actual numbers are quoted from these supposed surveys attesting to how eagerly the general population is looking forward to going back to movie theaters. And putting “the best place to watch a movie” in quotation marks reminds me of the desperate slogan concocted by 1950s Hollywood studio heads trying and failing to retain their hold on general audiences deserting theatrical releases for in-home entertainment available on their new television sets: “Movies Are Your Best Entertainment.”

The slogan didn’t last long because reporters noticed that the first letters of each word spelled out the acronym “MAYBE.”

Cinephiles still care deeply about seeing films on big screens, and many keep checking the various proposed opening dates. But I find when I eagerly update others, their indifference is startling. Of course, for those of us who crave getting out of the house to see a movie in public on a properly huge screen, there’s always the drive-in, now a popular and lucrative business again.

In addition to screening old favorite films, drive-ins feature live-streamed concerts at sometimes startling prices (for example, it costs $100 per car to watch a recent Garth Brooks concert) as well as local community events such as graduation ceremonies. Smart!

There are probably a reasonable number of Americans who’d be happy enough to go back to movie theaters if they could be made COVID-19-safe, and to that end theater chain reps are reminding us in interviews that their theaters in Europe are “running normally.” Still, extra care is being taken with American theater openings because America’s coronavirus case numbers, recently spiking in many areas, are so abysmal.

To counter people’s natural fears major theater chains are prominently advertising their social distancing rules on their websites in advance of reopening. The AMC theater chain — which only recently avoided bankruptcy with a $300 million infusion of investor cash — features on its site the slogan “AMC Theaters: Safe and Clean.”

AMC’s reopening regulations stipulate that its theaters will be limited to 30 percent audience capacity seating, with requests for one empty seat between each patron (stadium seating) and every other row empty (traditional seating). There will be extra time between movies for disinfecting “common areas and high touch points” in the theater, upgraded HVAC filters, and signs reinforcing social distancing rules.

Cashless transactions will be encouraged. Masks will be required for employees at all times, and for patrons they are required in lobbies and restrooms — but not inside the theaters themselves, in order that concession stand food and drinks can be consumed. Simplified concession stand menus will serve small sizes only to discourage sharing.

These restrictions might seem impressive until you consider those reportedly enforced in China. Excluding the hardest hit city of Beijing, where theaters remain closed, China’s theaters opened on July 20 with a strict set of social distancing rules in place. Theaters operate at 30 percent capacity, and two meters (at least two seats) are required between each patron, whose temperature has been taken at the theater entrance.

No films over two hours long are screened. Masks are mandatory in all spaces for employees and patrons. There are no concessions stands operating, to ensure patrons’ masks stay on at all times. A rigorous series of disinfection cleanings are scheduled between each show and five times per day in common areas.

Given the higher risk levels in American theaters with concession stands open, masks off inside screening areas, and more “encouraged but not required” stipulations in general, it’s not hard to predict one of two outcomes by Christmas. One, almost nobody goes to movie theaters in spite of reopenings, which makes it safer for the few patrons but bad for increasingly desperate exhibitors.

Or two: if Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, the upcoming big-budget spectacle being used to drive theater openings, is a hit, we can imagine the resultant spikes in COVID-19 cases for ourselves. Even at a third-capacity, a theater audience constitutes a bunch of people sitting in a confined space for hours, breathing recirculated air. They’ll mostly be mask-less while eating and drinking and talking and texting, as always. That could easily drive more COVID outbreaks. Will theaters have to shut down again in a few months because of a bankruptcy-threatening lack of ticket sales, or the pandemic?

And among these worst-case scenarios for exhibitors lurks another terror, the fact that the production of new Hollywood movies — as is the case for films elsewhere — is almost at a standstill, with no new releases in the pipeline after the limited number already announced:

“The longer this goes, there will be bankruptcy filings and reorganizations and there will be people who go out of business,” says [John Fithian, president and chief executive of National Association of Theater Owners], who’s currently lobbying for greater Congressional support for theaters. “But if there are no new movies until there’s a vaccine, that’s a dire situation for a lot of companies.”

Considering the breadth of this industry-killing catastrophe, it seems as though a radical rethinking of how the film industry is going to work is long overdue. Hollywood is still entrenched in a financial structure that was established in the late 1970s to early 1980s, when the film industry stabilized its operations through risk-spreading corporate conglomerate practices including the blockbuster and saturation release strategy providing a “tentpole” to hold up slates of less expensive films.

In order for that to work, packed theaters full of audience members worldwide have to turn out for several monstrously expensive spectacles per year, creating sufficiently immense profits to carry smaller but riskier ventures. As UCLA film historian Jonathan Kuntz, put it in a recent Fortune magazine interview, the Christopher Nolan blockbuster Tenet that’s key to spearheading the reopening of theaters “was made for a world that no longer exists”:

They’re going to have to be very inventive and very nimble to squeeze what they can out of this movie and maybe set a pattern for this kind of COVID theatrical universe we’re moving into. If they don’t do something, if they just keeping holding the films back, the theaters are going to die. Then everything’s going to just be streaming and we’ll have lost something a lot of people — not just Christopher Nolan — treasure.

But the scarier thing to contemplate, for exhibitors, is how many people still actually “treasure” the film-going experience enough to risk COVID-19 exposure, perhaps for years to come?

Disney seems to be gambling against the centrality of the theater-going experience, judging by  its last-minute change for the American premiere of Mulan, another planned blockbuster which has had several different release dates since the initial one, which was in March. According to the most recent announcements, Mulan will now premiere on September 4th on the Disney Plus channel, and subscribers only can view the film for the whopping fee of $30 on top of the $7 per month they already pay.

Disney was always a friend to the exhibitors, and with this bold new experiment in theater-less film premieres, you can almost hear them screaming.