How will the coronavirus affect moviegoing? By Mazzy Smallwood

The coronavirus pandemic has shaken a lot of industries, but one that has been hit particularly hard is the film industry, specifically the theater business. Shut down since late March, some movie theaters are starting to re-open. However, with studios postponing release dates or releasing through streaming, theaters can't return to business as usual even if they wanted to.

Posters from movies delayed by the Coronavirus.

What is this like for someone working in the movie business?

Sean Lester, a social media manager for Cinemark, said his job has “changed a lot and it feels like every day it changes on us again.” The Cinemark offices in Plano have been operating at 50% capacity, with many employees working from home for months.

His job was especially impacted because as studios pushed their release dates, theaters “weren’t running any ads. We couldn’t spend money so there was a lot of planning, a lot of concepting of ‘what would we do when we’re ready to open? how do we communicate strongly to the customer that it’s safe for them to come back?’”

A scene from Disney's live-action Mulan, scheduled for an August 2020 release.

Lester explained that it’s especially difficult to promote movies when the release date is potentially a moving target.

“If studios aren’t launching their multimillion dollar campaigns, TV ads, all kinds of different things, then (theaters) can’t launch ours either," Lester said.

Stephen Becker, a senior producer for KERA, has covered movies for decades in North Texas. He said that the summer is usually a busy time for movie reporters, as studios release movies at such a rapid pace it can be hard to keep up.

How are theaters adapting?

As they are reopening, theaters have been instituting new sanitation procedures.

“Having things like cleaning the seats and some of our tables in certain theaters after every showing, giving the customer the ability to have hand sanitizer stations and wipes that they can wipe down the seats just for comfortability, concessions has changed drastically," Lester said. "You’re using contactless payments, no self-serve candy or anything like that… the spacing of where you’re sitting. When you get online to buy your seat you select your seat and you automatically have a two seat buffer on each side of you.”

In addition, theaters are requiring their staff to wear masks and asking customers to wear masks except for when eating.

Lester predicts that some of these new health measures will stay in place even after the threat of the coronavirus has passed. "A lot of these things probably went overlooked” because people (theaters and customers) just weren’t as vigilant or as aware of how germs can spread 6 months ago.

Becker said that despite these measures, he would not feel comfortable in a theater just yet. "I can't think of any movie I’m so excited about that my health is worth risking."

What does the rest of the summer look like?

Lester predicts that a majority of theaters won’t be open until sometime in August. There are a few new movies currently scheduled for an August release including Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Disney’s live action Mulan.

A scene from Christopher Nolan's upcoming film Tenet, scheduled for an August 2020 release.

In the meantime, "the next few months are really just baby steps,” Lester said. Theaters aren’t trying to return to normal all at once. Instead they are showing older movies that can bring back nostalgic customers, but don’t attract the big crowds of a new release.

What is the long term effect of losing the 2020 summer blockbusters?

With most of the summer movies being pushed back, “there’s a loaded calendar of movies in December/November,” Lester said, though, “we may not see a return to true moviegoing the way it quote-unquote ‘used to be’ until 2022.”

Lester argues that the idea of the "summer blockbuster" is already changing and points to recent films like Captain Marvel and Black Panther, which were huge financial successes despite being released in February and March. These movies show that “you don’t have to be the 4th of July weekend movie anymore. You can be big on another weekend,” Lester said.

As for the financial implications, Lester said that Cinemark and other major theater companies have all been forced to “borrow debt,” lay off some workers and permanently close some older under-performing theaters. Variety reports that studios haven’t seen significant losses yet, but are at risk of losing millions if they have to continue to postpone releases and restart ad campaigns.

“Film studios are businesses like any other," Becker said, "and imagine if Walmart said ‘well, we’re closing our stores for three months.' That’s a disaster."

The coronavirus has also affected studios production schedules as movies have had to delay shooting dates. The long-term ripple effect of these delays is unclear, but Becker said he predicts that studios in search of shooting locations will be "clawing down the doors" of countries like New Zealand, which have kept the Coronavirus mostly under control. As studios are unable to shoot, production will be delayed and release dates set years into the future will be affected as well.

The absence of theaters will also reinforce the trend of studios sending their movies directly to streaming platforms like Netflix or Amazon.

"Even four or five years ago, people who covered movies would maybe kind of thumb their nose at something that was only getting a digital release or only being released on Netflix or what have you," Becker said, "but those barriers are starting to break down and they’ve just been demolished in the last few months."

He also wonder if the success of the musical Hamilton, which was recently released on Disney+ will give studios confidence that should they release their movies to streaming platforms. "They might get, at least, a higher return than they previously thought."

As for the future of moviegoing, Lester said that "as a company we’re excited for people to come back whenever that may be. It’s obviously tough times and I think what our CEO keeps telling us is movie theaters as a place to escape and get away and be apart from all of this that's going on is important ... and if we can do that and do it safely, then I think our job will have been well done.”

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