The next six weeks will be devoid of major films, leaving pandemic-crippled theaters with some hard decisions about staying open
The release of “Tenet” and the subsequent reopening of American movie theaters did not provide the kind of rebound it had hoped. Now, with a threadbare October release slate ahead and the prospect of a second wave of pandemic spread that could slow or roll back theater openings, some very difficult decisions await cinemas trying to manage operating costs.
“October is going to face noticeable regression,” Boxoffice analyst Shawn Robbins warned. “The industry is facing a perfect storm of studios wary to release or market major films, and governments struggling to balance containing the virus, conveying consumer safety and preserving the economy.”
Join WrapPRO for Exclusive Content,
Full Video Access, Premium Events, and More!
Approximately 70% of theaters nationwide have reopened since the end of August, but a combination of a lack of several strong titles and fears of contracting COVID-19 has kept audiences away. With “Mulan” leaving theaters for Disney+, “Tenet” easily led the September domestic box office charts this past month with just $41.2 million, and overall business for the month dropped 78% year-over-year.
And it’s going to get even harder. A representative for Cinemark has told TheWrap that the chain will consider cutting operating hours in regions where audience turnout has been exceptionally low, and sources have told TheWrap that thousands of theaters in smaller markets will be reducing their showtimes, as well. Even in mid-September, some theaters in small towns reported having closed theaters on weekdays due to low turnout failing to meet operating costs. That trend is expected to expand in the coming weeks.
“Cinemark’s reopening plan was thoughtfully and strategically designed with multiple contingencies in place to ensure we are able to be nimble and react as needed to the ever-changing environment,” Cinemark said in a statement. “That said, we will evaluate opportunities to align with demand, including reducing operating hours while we await new studio content to encourage theatrical moviegoing.”
These cuts have been expected since Warner Bros. and Universal announced that “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Candyman,” the two films theaters hoped would be the big-ticket sellers in October, would be moved respectively to Christmas Day and 2021.
What’s left is a small handful of indie titles like Open Road’s “Honest Thief” starring Liam Neeson, the Freestyle YA romance film “2 Hearts,” and Sony/Stage 6’s Filipino-American coming-of-age film “Yellow Rose.” In fact, the biggest film coming in October isn’t a theatrical release but a streaming one: Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which Netflix purchased from Paramount and released this past weekend in approximately 100 theaters to reportedly near-zero turnout. The film, which is expected to be an Oscar contender, will hit streaming on Oct. 16.
It is unlikely that any of the films still coming in October will earn weekend grosses of more than $1.5 million. This past weekend, Sony/Stage 6’s “The Last Shift” took in $246,000 on 871 screens. While October’s indie titles may get a larger screen count as theaters welcome new content — “2 Hearts,” for example, will be released on at least 1,500 screens on Oct. 16 — the highest result for any film since the release of “Tenet” was for the Jim Caviezel thriller “Infidel,” which took in a $1.5 million opening from 1,729 screens.
For thousands of independent and regional chain movie theaters, that’s extremely bad news. On Wednesday, the National Association of Theater Owners warned in a letter to Congress that 69% of theaters outside of the major chains could face bankruptcy if they do not receive federal aid, potentially resulting in the loss of two-thirds of theater jobs. In the early months of the pandemic, theater employees were able to get some relief from federal funds provided through the CARES Act, but those funds expired in July, and Congress has not reached a deal on a new relief package since.
“Absent a solution designed for their circumstances, theaters may not survive the impact of the pandemic,” warns the letter, which was cosigned by the Directors Guild of America, the Motion Picture Association and over 70 top filmmakers.
In the short term, there’s not a lot of options for theaters except to try to weather the next six weeks, hoping that Congress can agree on some form of financial aid, and that MGM and Disney don’t move the last two remaining major releases in November: the James Bond movie “No Time to Die” and the Pixar animated film “Soul.”
Combined, those films might be able to encourage a wider swath of moviegoers to return to theaters, something that was lost when Disney moved “Mulan” to PVOD and left “Tenet” as the sole major title for reopening theaters.
“Even under normal circumstances, theaters can’t just rely on one movie to bring in business. A strong box office has always come from a variety of films,” Robbins said. “‘Tenet’ and ‘Mulan’ may have attracted a wider range of consumers if the latter had been in theaters and studios had provided support by helping to convey the health protocols adopted by cinema owners. Families aren’t going to drive a [Christopher] Nolan sci-fi film, obviously. From an analysis end, the re-opening has so far relied too heavily on scattered word of mouth and a lack of information.”
“This is a risk-averse industry, but having more high profile titles available and ad campaigns to back them could lead to better indication of how confident moviegoers can be in the long term safety of theaters. That direct communication simply hasn’t happened yet.”
But the same ever-present threat of escalating infections could still harm theaters even if they don’t push Bond or “Soul” out of 2020. According to Johns Hopkins University, the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests is increasing in 27 states. In California, where hundreds of theaters are either closed or operating with 25% maximum capacity, state health and human services secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly warned last week that hospitalizations are expected to increase by 89% in October.
That means that the conditions that have made most moviegoers reluctant to go to theaters aren’t going away anytime soon, and that is reflected even in the most optimistic of financial outlooks for the industry. Two weeks ago, B.Riley financial analyst Eric Wold said that a resurgence for theaters in 2021 should be expected once a vaccine for the virus begins rolling out and studios begin committing highly-anticipated tentpoles to theaters again. But even he warned that any films that release in 2020 should be seen as a “test run” for the box office and that short-term expectations should be heavily curtailed.