Can Movie Theaters Survive the Coronavirus Crisis?

Aero Theater Los Angeles Closed Coronavirus
Michael Buckner for Variety

Movie theaters have endured world wars, depressions and recessions, and the advent of everything from television to streaming. But COVID-19 and the public health crisis it has generated around the globe represent an existential threat to the cinema business like no other.

In a matter of days with the accelerating spread of the contagion, most of the largest cinema chains announced they were going dark for six to 12 weeks, and major studios postponed the releases of tentpole films such as “Black Widow” and “A Quiet Place Part II.” It’s unclear what awaits these theaters when they reemerge from the unprecedented quarantines and how severe the economic toll of the work stoppages will be.

“There’s never been a situation like this,” says Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners. “Fear of the unknown is never a good thing for stock prices. We will return to normalcy at some point, but as we ride this out, there’s going to be near-term pain.”

It’s not the same as yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater, but the words “coronavirus” and “social distancing” are scary enough to send exhibition investors stampeding for the exits. They’re unloading movie theater stocks as hundreds of venues temporarily close, studios begin to stream new film releases directly to consumers and the U.S. economy hurtles toward recession. If cinemas remain closed for a few months — which is seen as a real possibility — then the exhibition industry as we know it is “genuinely at risk,” says Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter.

Investors concur. In the first half of March, the companies that control North America’s five largest theater chains lost more than half their market value. AMC Entertainment’s stock price fell 58%. Cineworld — which owns Regal Cinemas and has agreed to buy Canada’s Cineplex — fell nearly 76%. Cinemark dropped 68%. Cineplex, with its sale to Cineworld seen to be in jeopardy, plummeted 72%. And Marcus Corp. lost 58%.

Other companies tied to exhibition suffered similar losses. Imax declined 41%, and cinema ad seller National CineMedia fell 60%. Last week theater owners asked the federal government for a bailout package that would include loan guarantees and tax relief, which they said would allow them to stay solvent. As of press time, it was unclear whether the stimulus bill that’s being debated in Congress will include everything the exhibition community is seeking.

As they enter uncharted territory, executives plead for patience. “Without a doubt we will get to the other side,” says Jim Orr, president of domestic theatrical distribution for Universal Pictures. “How long is all of this lasting? Nobody knows.”

Theater owners believe that after two years of declining box office sales, business will return to normal, and they will see a record high in 2021 as Hollywood releases a truckload of franchise sequels. The haul includes four films from the Marvel universe — “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” “Spider-Man 3” and “Thor: Love and Thunder” — as well as “Jurassic World: Dominion,” “The Batman,” “Mission: Impossible 7,” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” and “Avatar 2.”

“When the 2021 box office eventually is reported, we believe it will be the pessimists and the naysayers who will turn out to have been wrong,” AMC chief Adam Aron told analysts in February before he and others had to close theaters.

Boasts like that have not aged well. Because of the shutdown, several movies, such as “F9” and “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” have been pushed back or delayed indefinitely. Consequently, this quarter will see the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket sales. It’s possible that the infection rates won’t have peaked when the summer movie season kicks off, forcing exhibitors to sit out one of the most lucrative times of their year.

“This year’s box office is going to look like the biggest asterisk you’ve ever seen,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “You’ll never be able to compare 2020 to any other year and have it mean anything. It’s going to be a lost year. It just won’t be there.”

Many investors doubt that time is on the industry’s side. Some of the largest companies are loaded with debt after years of borrowing to finance acquisitions and investments in improvements such as recliner seats. Their stock could become worthless if they can’t make their interest payments and have to file for bankruptcy protection. A few exhibition companies were shocked by the industry downturn before the onset of the coronavirus. High-end movie-and-food chain iPic; the industry’s largest maker of recliner seats, VIP Cinema Holdings; and Midwest chain Goodrich Quality Theaters filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection over the past 12 months. LightShed Partners analyst Richard Greenfield predicts that more bankruptcies “will be inevitable for most of the industry.”

All eyes are on AMC, the world’s biggest exhibition company. Benchmark Co. analyst Mike Hickey says he’s “increasingly concerned” about its ability to handle the $4.9 billion in debt on its books at the end of 2019.

The chain, controlled by China’s Dalian Wanda Group, might lack “financial flexibility to cover a longer-than-anticipated slowdown or the potential for a complete shutdown of its theatrical network,” Hickey said this month as he downgraded AMC shares to “hold.” The company has several locations in cities such as New York and Los Angeles, where rents are notoriously high. Analysts expect that the company will try to negotiate with landlords as it hustles to find ways to save on overhead.

Michael Buckner for Variety

Before the virus upended American life, Aron said his “single top priority” was reducing the debt. He plans to cut 2020 capital expenditures by as much as $135 million. He also sliced the company dividend from 20¢ a share to 3¢, partly attributable to a term in one borrowing agreement that would penalize AMC if it didn’t reduce the outlay to 10¢ or less by mid-September 2020.

To underscore his optimism, Aron and other AMC executives in February took a 15% pay cut for the next three years in return for options that begin to pay off when the stock price exceeds $12 a share.

“I just put my money where my mouth is,” Aron said on Feb. 27 after AMC’s stock price — which traded at about $17 a share less than a year ago — closed at $6.09. The shares closed March 20 at $3.19.

Meanwhile, Cineworld plans to borrow $2.3 billion to fund its recent deal to buy Cineplex, Canada’s largest chain. That adds to the $3.5 billion in debt still on its books from the 2018 purchase of Regal Entertainment Group. Given the uncertain impact coronavirus is having on the distribution industry, that deal could be in jeopardy.

“That’s going to be tough to manage,” says Handler. “Is Cineworld really going to want to go deeper in debt to buy it? Do they want to have more expenses going on when there’s no revenue coming in?”

Cineworld said last week that it, too, plans to cut expenditures — and should weather the storm, unless theaters must close for more than two months. If that happens, it added, then “there is a risk of breaching the Group’s financial covenants [with lenders], unless a waiver agreement
is reached.”

Many owners of small to midsize circuits also are straining against short leashes. 

“I’ve asked my two landlords: ‘I’m not proposing to not pay my rent. But if I get in a jam, can I postpone it?’” says Mark O’Meara, who owns University Mall Theatres and Cinema Arts Theatres in Fairfax County, Va. “Neither one has responded yet. I have high rent at both my locations. I’m just really lucky; I’ve had people donate money to me to stay open. But at some point I can’t.”

Employees will be among the first to suffer.

“We can cut payroll, to an extent,” says Jeff Logan, who owns Logan Luxury Theatres, a three-venue chain in South Dakota that his father started in 1933. “You sell tickets at the concession stand so you don’t need a separate person at the box office. It’s not ideal. But if volume gets low, you can get away with one or two people doing it.”

The pain could be acute.

“I have a lot of kids working here who make a living on a shoestring, and I can’t pay that well,” O’Meara says. “They can’t afford to lose more than one or two shifts a week, and I don’t know what to do. … It really is scary. We’re trying to cope the best we can.”

Many of these employees were hourly and have been dismissed or furloughed as theaters shutter, leaving them without income. Joel Valentin, a 24-year-old employee at the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, N.Y., was told that he would be let go an hour before his shift was supposed to start on March 13. He was given a Google doc outlining the steps to apply for unemployment and information about getting health insurance through COBRA.

“It’s stressful,” says Valentin. “They say my job will be there when they reopen, but who knows when this will be over.” 

Theaters will emerge from the emergency dangerously weakened.

With cinemas temporarily dark, studios are feeling emboldened to test how much consumers will pay to rent and watch new releases at home — encroaching on the 90-day window when exhibition chains insist they need the films exclusively.

Last week Universal Pictures said it would rent DreamWorks Animation’s “Trolls World Tour” to home viewers for about $20 for a single showing beginning April 10 — the same day it’s supposed to hit theaters. The studio is about to offer the same home viewing opportunities for “The Invisible Man,” “The Hunt” and “Emma,” although each is still in theaters.

Exhibitors have said that their sales would suffer — and movies would lose their cachet — if consumers knew they could watch current films at home. That’s why the largest chains dug in their heels last year when Netflix sought a short theatrical window for Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” The movie appeared in just a few dozen independent venues.

“We are open to a deal [with studios] … but we have to have a window,” Gregory Marcus, CEO of The Marcus Corp. — which owns the fourth-largest domestic theater circuit — told investors in February. “If they shorten the window, they degrade the value because we are in a battle against the couch.”

Marcus and his exhibition cohort have little leverage for the time being.

Theater owners “cannot threaten to not show a movie in their theaters” because “exhibitors cannot show any movies right now,” LightShed Partners’ Greenfield says.

He adds that the 90-day window “was never consumer-focused; it was always about the business. Universal making content more easily available is putting consumers first in 2020 — just try explaining the 90-day theatrical window concept to a millennial, let alone a Gen Zer.”

If studios see that the numbers work for early home viewing, and consumers become accustomed to watching the new films in their living rooms, then it “stands to rewrite studio business dynamics,” Wells Fargo Securities’ Steven Cahill says.

Universal and Warner Bros. have especially strong incentives to break the 90-day window. Their parent companies, Comcast and AT&T, make most of their money from subscribers who want content for TVs and mobile devices.

These studios might be tempted to shatter the window in order to offer some of their most appealing productions on their emerging streaming platforms, including Disney Plus, HBO Max and Peacock. Some industry observers believe that Universal’s moves to shorten the window could also change the way consumers think about the big-screen experience.

“You are getting viewers accustomed to watching movies in the home earlier, and that’s going to alter the psychology of an average moviegoer,” says Hal Vogel, a veteran media analyst. “I’m not saying they’ll never go munch on popcorn and watch a movie in the theaters again, but it does change things.”

Analysts say streaming services began to eat into moviegoing before the corona-virus chaos. And although there’s little empirical evidence of a connection, that might change. “There is going to be an impact from streaming on moviegoing,” MoffettNathanson Research’s Robert Fishman says. “The open-ended question is: When?”

When you add it all up, “I don’t see any shining silver lining to get people to want to invest in this group anytime soon,” B. Riley FBR analyst Eric Wold says. “You never know why someone does not go to see a movie. So people always assume it’s something systemic that’s keeping them away.”

Exhibition bulls say it’s a bad idea to bet against an industry that’s survived so much social and political upheaval. Movie fans have “demonstrated time and time again a desire to experience the magic and wonder of a larger-than-life immersive cinematic experience that can only happen in a large darkened auditorium among fellow moviegoers enthralled in the on-screen action,” Cinemark CEO Mark Zoradi told investors in February.

If he’s right and sales pick up, then his company and others are well positioned to benefit as they decrease their spending.

“2017-18 was the peak” for capital expenditures, Wold says. “As you get into next year, with box office going up and [capital expenditures] going down, free cash flow should increase materially.”

Why don’t Wall Street wizards take advantage of exhibition’s depressed stock prices and buy them while they’re cheap?

There’s a disconnect, National Assn. of Theatre Owners executive Patrick Corcoran said in early March, because weekly reports about box office sales provide industry watchers with “a lot of ups and downs” that distort the big picture.

“Over time it doesn’t add up to anything,” he says. “The fundamentals have not changed. It’s product driven. Roughly the same number of people have gone to the movies year in and year out for the last decade. And box office revenues are increasing, and concession revenues
are increasing.”

Corcoran says journalists who cover exhibition share some of the blame by hyping its problems. 

“You have people writing [in newspapers and magazines] about our industry who were deeply affected by digital disruption,” he says. “But it’s not happening in our industry.”

Exhibition bulls also reject the idea that a great deal of movie fans will buy fewer tickets to stay home and watch the offerings on Netflix and other streaming services.

That’s “a misperception held by a bunch of morons,” Wedbush Securities’ Pachter said before the coronavirus crisis.

Indeed, a late-2019 NATO-commissioned survey by consulting firm EY’s Quantitative Economics and Statistics group found that the people who visit theaters most frequently also tend to be the most active streamers.

But wait. Don’t young people love streaming — and hate spending hours in a venue where they are not allowed to text?

“It’s actually just the opposite,” Corcoran says. “Young people want experiences. They are not buying things. They go to bars and restaurants and go on vacations. They want something interesting and fun. Our best customers are people 18 to 34 and especially 18 to 24. They go the most often because they’re social. Young people go out. Old people stay home.”

That’s not to say that theaters have been unaffected by TV and streaming. But the trade group says the change was driven by studios, not consumers.

The number of releases that gross between $50 million and $100 million declined 44%, to 23, from 2004 to 2019, Corcoran says. Many of those films — including romantic comedies and character-driven films for adults — now go straight to streaming platforms and TV channels.

That hurts theaters: The non-blockbusters accounted for 172 million admissions last year, down 61% from 2004.

NATO says studios would help their streaming services if they introduced more of those movies exclusively in theaters, instead of sending them directly
to the home.

Audiences “want to know that they have something valuable there,” Corcoran says. “People fall back on things that they know. And theatrical provides awareness and the sense of quality. … Netflix knows this. That’s why it goes after filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and gives him a token release.”

There may be pent-up demand for movies when theaters reopen, but industry veterans believe that the ramp-up will be slow. Theaters may only come back in certain regions. Most likely they will introduce cleaning precautions and social distancing measures that weren’t enforced before they turned out the marquee lights.

“There are going to be challenges to reopen the marketplace, but as long as studios and exhibition work together, we just need to have an orderly marketplace to reopen,” says Chris Aronson, domestic distribution president at Paramount. “That starts with setting a reasonable release schedule. Those tentpoles will be what will draw people back to theaters. Those tentpoles will provide a road map to success.”

Despite the job losses, plunging stocks and possible bankruptcies, Aronson isn’t ready to roll the credits on the movie theater business.

“I think theaters will survive,” he says. “It may be altered, and the landscape might be different. But it’ll survive.”

That unvarnished forecast won’t excite Wall Street. Yet at a time of industry-wide mayhem, executives might be content if investors stayed calm — and
in their seats. 

Rebecca Rubin contributed to this report.

David Lieberman is an associate professor in the graduate Media Management program at The New School.