President Donald Trump announced Thursday that cinemas might slowly be able to reopen in the coming months. The news, tucked into a larger set of guidelines detailing when — and how — the U.S. economy can resume during the coronavirus pandemic, was a beacon of hope for movie theater owners, whose business has been devastated by mandated shutdowns.
But even if multiplex marquees get re-ignited, it could still be several months before studios feel confident launching their biggest blockbusters.
Release calendars have been mostly cleared through August, though a few stragglers such as Universal’s comedy “The King of Staten Island” (June 19), Warner Bros.’ sci-fi thriller “Tenet” (July 17), Disney’s live-action “Mulan” (July 24) and Warner Bros.’ comic book adventure “Wonder Woman 1984” (Aug. 14) haven’t vacated their late-summer opening weekends. Theater chains such as Cinemark have predicted that people could start going back to the movies in early July. However, there’s still no clear sign that their lights will be able to turn back on en masse by then.
The reopening process will almost certainly differ among states, meaning theaters could gradually commence operation in regions that are less affected by the virus, while venues in the hardest-hit areas like New York and New Jersey might have to remain shuttered for longer. If that’s the case, studios will have little incentive to roll out their most important movies without major markets in the U.S. open for business.
“New York and Los Angeles are going to take a lot more time [to reopen] than Montana,” predicts Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “Nobody is going to open ‘Mulan’ or ‘Tenet’ if it’s just submarkets.”
Bock adds, “I just don’t see a big blockbuster opening off the bat, no matter how much assurance we have. This is going to take a while for [people] to adjust to.”
It’s even less likely that tentpoles will grace the big screen so soon, should the rest of the world remain under lockdown. Titles like “Mulan” and “Wonder Woman 1984” carry massive price tags and count on their global appeal to attract crowds in hopes of turning a profit. It’s dicey, analysts say, for studios to test the waters with properties that are expected to generate $1 billion.
“If movie theaters across the world are open to different degrees, financially it becomes very difficult because [big-budget movies] rely on global grosses,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior analyst with Comscore.
When large venues in the U.S. are finally able to reopen, the proposed federal guidelines stipulate strictly limiting seating capacity for social distancing. Those measures, while crucial to ensure safety until there is a vaccine, will automatically limit the amount of tickets sold per movie.
“Theaters generate a tremendous amount of revenue, and that’s how these movies earn back their budget,” Dergarabedian said. “If you have limited seating capacity, it could be more difficult.”
There’s also little indication of how willing audiences will be to return to theaters. There might be pent-up demand from patrons who have been stuck at home for several months. But it’s equally possible that audiences will be hesitant to rush back to crowded places — recent studies have suggested as much. That was the case in China, where a handful of theaters briefly reopened in March when the virus appeared to be under control, only to be quickly shut back down over fears that the disease could spark again.
Should cinemas successfully re-set up shop — at least in parts of the country — by July, there’s a sense that studios could mitigate risk by opening movies that are less reliant on international box office returns. Comedies, for example, are a genre that’s generally less expensive to produce and tend to generate most of their earnings in North America. They could also offer exhibitors popular older films from their catalogs for a cheaper price so there’s something to show on the big screen.
“There’s going to be a blockbuster that will take advantage of pent-up demand,” Dergarabedian anticipates. “But first, people have to feel safe and comfortable.”
There’s an old adage in Hollywood: The show must go on. But in the coronavirus era, that may not be the case. At least not yet.