”The industry is still nowhere near business-as-usual and won’t be there any time soon,“ Boxoffice analyst Shawn Robbins tells TheWrap
After multiple delays, the movie theater industry’s attempt to get back on its feet after five months of COVID-19 closures is off to a pretty good start.
So far, 2,152 theaters have reopened in North America, including 1,738 in the United States. Several major states have shown no signs of allowing theaters to reopen any time soon, so it will still be quite some time before all 5,800+ U.S. cinemas are back in business. But several analysts and distribution execs have told TheWrap that if current reopening plans are not disrupted by any new outbreaks, approximately 3,000 cinemas should be open by the time Warner Bros. releases “Tenet” on Labor Day weekend.
“The industry is still nowhere near business-as-usual and won’t be there any time soon, but at this early stage, we’re seeing the kind of steady recovery that studios and theater owners were hoping for,” Boxoffice analyst Shawn Robbins told TheWrap.
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More encouraging for the industry are signs of renewed interest in going to theaters. Beyond the solid $4 million opening for “Unhinged” this past weekend, internet searches for upcoming films like “Bill & Ted Face the Music” and for information on local theaters have significantly increased.
Analytics company SEMrush has found that the phrase, “What movie theaters are open right now” has seen a search engine spike of 381% since last week. Searches for drive-in theater locations have also increased 270% since May, which is when interest in seeing classic films at drive-ins began to peak.
“There’s always a seasonal pattern in searches for drive-in locations with peaks in the early summer,” SEMrush chief strategy officer Eugene Levin said. “But even relative to that peak, there is a big surge in searches for drive-in locations now that new films are being released. If normal theaters aren’t open in an area, people are looking to see which drive-ins are closest to where they live.”
That drive-in interest is reflected in the opening weekend performance of “Unhinged,” which saw drive-ins take up six of its top 10 highest performing theaters, including a Detroit location and four California locations taking up the top 5. Even in those states where theater reopening timetables have not been established, people are searching for ways to see the new films coming out. For Californians, that day may come soon, as Gov. Gavin Newsom promised a new timetable on reopening businesses by the end of the week.
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Of course, theaters still have a long way to go, and “Tenet” is still not expected to make the same amount at the box office that it would have in a normal environment, even if theaters continue to reopen into the fall. Plus, there is the constant threat of another COVID-19 surge that could force theaters to close again.
While the latest data shows falling infection rates in more than 30 states, the July surge that forced “Tenet” to delay its release and convinced Disney to move “Mulan” to premium on-demand release still remains fresh in the minds of distributors and cinema owners alike, and epidemiologists still say that another one could come if the public loses its vigilance.
“What we’re really concerned about are schools opening, Labor Day weekend and pandemic fatigue,” Texas epidemiologist Catherine Troisi told CNBC. “We were all tired of this five months ago. Now we’re really tired, so if people see the number of cases come down, they might think it’s OK to do things that are a little bit riskier.”
For now, theaters open this weekend will see the wide release of Orion’s “Bill & Ted Face the Music” and 20th Century Studios’ “The New Mutants,” as well as Searchlight’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield” in limited release. Along with “Tenet,” films set for release in September include “Antebellum” and “The King’s Man.”
Box Office Reporter • firstname.lastname@example.org • Twitter: @jeremyfuster