“At some point, things have to reopen, and a lot of theaters can’t wait for much longer,” Boxoffice analyst Shawn Robbins says
Movie theaters chains are still moving forward with their reopening schedule even as studios continue to shift release dates back and surging infection rates in multiple states, including California, threaten to upset their plans.
On Wednesday, Cinemark revealed its full plans to reopen its 345 domestic locations starting this Friday with five multiplexes in Dallas. Most locations expect to be ready by mid-July with the exception of those in cities like San Francisco that haven’t received clearance from county health officials to reopen. Regal Cinemas plans to have most of its theaters open by July 10 while AMC, the nation’s largest chain, has not set a specific timetable but expects to have most of its theaters back online by late July.
As studios tread carefully with their release schedules — Warner Bros. last week pushed back Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” two weeks to July 31 — exhibitors are looking for alternative programming to test moviegoers’ willingness to return to theaters even with new safety protocols in place to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
In an investor call, Cinemark CEO Mark Zoradi said that the chain will offer $5 tickets for classic films like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Goonies” prior to the release of new films like “Tenet” and Disney’s live-action “Mulan,” which is still set for a July 24 release. Like many exhibitors, Cinemark will offer limited concessions with no self-serve fountain drinks and popcorn refills in new bags only. Seating will be arranged via new ticketing software to ensure social distancing between individuals and families, including empty rows for auditoriums that do not have recliner seats.
“This is a plan that has been in the works for months now between nine different working groups,” Zoradi said. “We’re highly encouraged that by the time ‘Mulan’ opens up on the 24th, we are going to have the vast majority of our theaters open with no more than 50% capacity.”
All the chains have been in close communication with studios and the National Association of Theater Owners on any new developments in the pandemic. Through those talks, Cinemark has prepared contingency plans in case certain states or counties order theaters and other businesses to close again to prevent COVID-19 infections from overwhelming hospitals. In the past week, surges in COVID infections have been reported in several regions of the U.S., with hospitalizations rising in Arizona, Texas, Alabama and the Carolinas.
One reason theaters are moving full speed ahead despite this new spread of the virus is necessity, Boxoffice analyst Shawn Robbins told TheWrap. A midsummer reopening had been the general plan for major chains when they were forced to close this spring, and with other businesses — including Hollywood productions — trying to reopen, there’s more pressure on exhibitors to do the same.
“Everyone is trying to be flexible right now and work with all the information about the virus that’s coming in every day,” Robbins said. “But at some point, things have to reopen, and a lot of theaters can’t wait for much longer. For now, there’s still reason to believe that most theaters will be open again in July, even with a 25% capacity limit, but I think studios also understand that they just may have to accept that things are always changing some states might not be able to release the film right away if things get bad enough.”
On the bright side, Warner Bros.’ decision to move “Tenet” to July 31 may offer some new marketing opportunities that could help increase theater turnout. Warner plans to re-release Nolan’s Oscar-winning 2010 film “Inception” on July 17, which will include an introduction by Nolan and a sneak preview of “Tenet” featuring never-before-seen footage.
“Tenet” will also now hit theaters on the same day that the NBA is set to resume play in Orlando. As the first of the four major American sports leagues to return since the pandemic, the NBA will bring plenty of eyeballs to ESPN and TNT, as fans get their sports fix while casual viewers may tune in just to see what an NBA game without fans looks like. Even if interest in basketball keeps audiences away from “Tenet” during its opening weekend, running TV spots during the games could help increase turnout later in the film’s run when audiences may grow more comfortable with going back to theaters.
Studio marketing departments have traditionally relied on professional sports broadcasts to promote films and now are trying to figure out how promote without an ad space as reliable as live sports. In that regard, having the NBA back will be a big help for Warner Bros. even if ads only air during the film’s theatrical run rather than before it. But no matter what Warner does, the rest of Hollywood will be watching its marketing plans very closely.
“In general, studios want at least two months of major marketing before a blockbuster release,” Bruce Nash, analyst and founder of The Numbers told TheWrap. “With the pandemic making the market so unstable and the U.S. basically acting like 50 different countries in how they are addressing the crisis, it’s extremely difficult to do any long-term planning, which is exactly what releasing a film requires. There’s going to be a lot to learn from how ‘Tenet’ and ‘Mulan’ perform in theaters and how these studios plan to release a movie during the pandemic.”
Like almost every other industry in the world, the entertainment industry is facing the reality that certainty is a luxury during a pandemic, and any film that comes out will have to be prepared to adjust its plans at a moment’s notice.
“No film is going to be a sure hit,” Cinetic Media founder John Sloss says. “There is going to be greater risk for any film that goes to theatrical release. It’s a necessary path for the biggest blockbusters, but until we get a vaccine studios should expect that the theatrical experience isn’t going to be as strong a draw as it once was.”
CORRECTION: 5:25 PM PT — A previous version of this story noted that Cinemark has 555 locations. This total includes the company’s locations in Latin America, which are not yet reopening. This figure has been corrected to 345 domestic locations that Cinemark plans to reopen by by mid-July.