How Movie Theaters Will Need to Adapt When the Lights Come Back On

“I think we’ll be able to make deals with our studio partners to attract people back with attractive pricing,” Cinemark Theaters’ CEO Mark Zoradi says

As Cinemark and AMC prepare to reopen theaters in July, questions remain about what the moviegoing experience will look like in the immediate wake of the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns.

There are concerns throughout Hollywood, and across other industries (particularly live events), about whether moviegoers would be willing to take the potential risk of heading back to the cinema to sit in a dark theater full of strangers.

Cinemark CEO Mark Zoradi and Sean Gamble, holding double duty as CFO and chief operating officer, told Wall Street analysts during a conference call this week that the cinema chain — while anxious to get back up and running — is looking at whatever options are on the table to take the necessary precautions.

“We would not be in a scenario where we would be inclined to bring back everything Day 1. Clearly, it would be more of a dip-our-toe-in approach,” Gamble said during the call. “We’re spending a lot of time figuring out what this looks like, but there’s still a lot of analysis to complete.”

As luxury seating has become more ubiquitous in major cinema chains, many of Cinemark’s theaters are already equipped with recliners, providing more distance between people.

“We could sell every other seat, or we can do what we had done before we closed in March, which was we suspended for a period of time reserved seating,” he said. “We could still only sell 50% of the seats if that was mandated by local or state government… we’d sell 50% of the seats and let people come in and choose where they want to sit.”

On Thursday, the federal government announced new guidelines for how and when the U.S. economy can reopen, including a phased approach that dictates when audiences can return to movie theaters and other venues. States would need to meet certain criteria — including a consistent and maintained drop in COVID-19 cases — within a 14-day period before movie theaters could reopen “under strict physical distancing protocols.” The first phase would still limit gatherings of 10 or more people, which is likely impractical to allow most movie theaters to open. Phase 2 of the reopening protocol raises the gathering limit to 50 — which is where many theaters were just before the nationwide shutdown.

Zoradi said Cinemark would likely start by opening periodically, possibly for a few days a week. The plan would be to ramp up from there, depending on audience demand. Warner Bros. is planning to release its Christopher Nolan blockbuster “Tenet” July 17, which would be followed by Disney’s “Mulan,” a new “Spongebob” film and “Wonder Woman 1984,” the sequel to Warner Bros. hit 2017 superhero flick.

“What we hope to do is open the theaters in late June, and it’s our hope that over those two or three weeks that consumers start to feel more comfortable,” Zoradi said. “So by the time ‘Tenet’ comes around, we’re hopeful that this can be a very successful broad release, followed by ‘Mulan’ after that.”

Regal Cinemas and AMC did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment on potential steps being discussed. AMC has furloughed all of its corporate employees.

Before the pandemic forced the shut down of theaters and all nonessential businesses, Regal and AMC reduced the capacity in their theaters to 50% by capping the ticket sales for each showtime in each of their auditoriums.

Regal executives said at the time that the company was educating staff on prevention methods, emphasizing frequent and proper handwashing, cleaning high-contact points more frequently, providing hand sanitizing soap in all restrooms and working with local health authorities. AMC said it would take “aggressive” actions nationwide.

Cinemark on Wednesday said it has even considered lowering the cost of some movie tickets to incentivize moviegoers to frequent theaters again.

“I think where we will charge less is when we start to get people back in the theater with high-profile library product,” Zoradi said. “I think we’ll be able to make deals with our studio partners to attract people back with attractive pricing, prior to the big tentpole movies coming. I do not anticipate that we would charge more for tentpole pictures because of some form of social distancing.”

Zoradi said that certain health precautions, such as taking patrons’ temperature, are not yet on the table.

“At this point, I would say it’s not in the plan,” Zoradi said. “It doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be, but at this point, we don’t anticipate that.”

Experts have said the industry should expect a shift in consumer behaviors. According to a study published last month by Performance Research, a sports and events research firm, in partnership with Full Circle Research Co., 51% of the more than 1,000 U.S. consumers surveyed said it would take them a few months or longer to return to indoor sports or concert venues, while 44% reported the same for outdoor venues. Similarly, 33% indicated they will likely attend indoor sports or concert venues less often post-pandemic, while just 26% reported the same for outdoor venues.

Though not specific to the theatrical exhibition industry, the study indicates the hesitance consumers are bound to have once things begin to reopen.

B. Riley FBR analyst Eric Wold wrote in a note to clients earlier this week that there are still numerous uncertainties looming over the exhibition industry, “including when theaters will be allowed to reopen to the public, what the film slate will look like given most high-profile films have been pushed into the second half of 2020 and 2021, and how initial movie-going demand will develop and/or what government restrictions on attendance levels will be put into place.”

Trey Williams

Trey Williams

Film Reporter covering the biz • [email protected] • Twitter: @trey3williams



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