Distributors overestimated Irene's effect as East Coast theaters re-open

While Hurricane Irene turned out to be far less devastating than had been forecast on Friday, the storm’s impact on weekend box office — estimated to have cost B.O. $25 million — was certainly more than a blip, reducing overall U.S. totals 10%, or roughly $9.3 million.

Most distribs had overestimated the storm’s B.O. effect, with nearly all of the top 10 entries doing better than early weekend estimates. “The Help,” for example, won with a revised $14.5 million vs. the the $14.3 million projected for the pic on Sunday.

The sunnier figures also resulted in a slight improvement in year-to-year weekend comparisons: Box office totals are now down 18.9% from the same frame in 2010 vs. the originally projected 20%-25% deficit.

But Irene’s effect on theaters went beyond box office grosses.

For some East Coast exhibitors, such as New Jersey-based Clearview Cinemas, which operates 46 locations, virtually all within the New York metro area, theater closings were circuitwide, company-imposed ordeals on Saturday and Sunday. Other theater chains, like Landmark’s Sunshine theater in Manhattan, closed some locations because of subway shutdowns, which cut off the primary means of transportation for many employees.

“We played the movies for as long as we could,” said Landmark Theaters CEO Ted Mundorff. “But when Philadelphia and New York started announcing shutdowns, your patrons can’t get there. Neither can your employees.”

According to one bizzer, some exhibs even filed claims on business-interruption insurance policies after closing several locations over the weekend. But the number of chains able to make such claims was fairly small, since most BI policies have deductibles that range from 24 to 72 hours, meaning the claims paid don’t kick in until at least 24 hours after the first closure. (Regal Entertainment pays for such a policy through its overall insurance package, but which deductible it has was not known late Monday.)

Regal and AMC Theaters — the nation’s top two chains, respectively — hold roughly the same market share in the affected states, which make up approximately 16% of the nation’s overall box office. AMC reportedly lost $2.3 million in weekend grosses on the East Coast.

With the storm dissipated and the new week begun, a good number of theaters are back up and running, though a few are still dealing with power outages. Those locations were expected to reopen within the next day or two.

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