The Future of Movie Theaters In the Age of Coronavirus: A Dialogue

Movie Theaters Coronavirus
Rebecca Rubin

In the last six months, the coronavirus has decimated the business of American movies. People continue to watch new films on streaming services and, to a limited degree, in theaters, but the exhibition business is currently a shadow of its former self. The question is: Can it come back — and if so, how? Brent Lang, Variety’s executive editor of film and media, and its two chief film critics, Peter Debruge and Owen Gleiberman, discuss what the future holds for movie theaters.

Brent Lang: It’s a very, very bad time to own a movie theater. Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” was viewed by many as a potential cinematic savior, but the reviews were meh and the box office, domestically at least, uninspired. “Tenet” was supposed to kick off a moviegoing revival. Instead, it served as a textbook example of the difficulty of opening a blockbuster during coronavirus. With “No Time to Die” and “Dune” moving to 2021 and Cineworld shuttering its locations, are we going to have to say goodbye to movie theaters until there’s a widely available vaccine?

Peter Debruge: That’s both a health question and a business question. Business-wise, I think it all depends on whether studios are willing to stick their necks out after “Tenet” and risk losing a lot of potential revenue to help drive audiences to the theater chains that sustain them during normal times. Without new tentpoles (or fresh “content,” as pandemic winner Netflix calls it), the megaplexes simply can’t draw customers.

But all of this depends on the health aspect, and that’s where the most confusion remains. I saw “Tenet” in a theater, because that’s how Nolan insists his films are meant to be seen (and while my eyes agree, my ears beg to differ, since others would do well to wait for this incoherently mixed film and watch at home with subtitles), and it was an unnerving experience. I understand why many people don’t feel comfortable taking the risk. I caught COVID back in early March, so I was operating on the principle that I must have at least some protection from the antibodies — and if that’s not the case, then we can kiss the idea of an effective vaccine goodbye. After driving all the way down to a Regal Cinemas in Orange County, I was disappointed by the way the dozen or so people in that enormous RPX auditorium were all clustered in the center with just a single empty-seat buffer between them. What’s more, nearly everyone had bought concessions, treating an $8 soda as a ticket to remove their masks for the entire film, whether or not they were actively eating or drinking at the time. So here was an unnecessarily complicated film that demands 100% attention, and I found myself distracted by the question of whether I could get reinfected by all these inconsiderate fans surrounding me.

Owen Gleiberman: To be honest, I think there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance going on about these issues, and those of us in the media aren’t always good at cutting through it. Peter, you said it bothered you that people used an $8 soda as an excuse to remove their masks for an entire movie. But let’s imagine that they’d been more responsible. Let’s say that someone consumed a soda and a popcorn and then put his mask back on. Well, that still means they’re unmasked for 20 minutes. Is that okay? Where do we draw the line?

But to go back to Brent’s original question: If we have to say goodbye to movie theaters until there’s a widely available vaccine, then I think it’s just possible we’ll be saying goodbye to movie theaters, period. Because I’m not sure the road to a vaccine looks nearly as clear as people want it to be. I sympathize with the frustration of John Fithian, head of the National Association of Theater Owners, who in Brent’s recent interview with him asked New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, point blank: Why can’t movie theaters in New York City reopen if restaurants, gyms, and churches are reopening? Cuomo answered him by saying: Sorry, not going to do it. But he never explained away the contradiction. And I think that as activities like indoor restaurant dining restart, we have to ask ourselves why one is OK and the other isn’t. But the politics are incredibly explosive. There are people who believe that going out to see a movie is putting lives at risk for the sake of entertainment. This may be a controversial thing to say, but I think if that feeling dominates, then the future of movies may be dealt a devastating blow. And I’m not sure where we go with that.

BL: Owen, I agree with you. I don’t understand the distinction New York is drawing between socially distanced moviegoing and other state-sanctioned activities, such as indoor dining and churches where people are unmasked and talking/singing/being generally worshipful for extended periods of time. I sympathize with what John Fithian is saying and agree that the rules are arbitrary and deeply unfair.

But there’s also the politics of it. Cuomo seems like one prickly alpha. The statement he made in response to the criticism by Fithian and Cineworld chief Mooky Greidinger was scalding and doesn’t suggest he’s open to negotiate, particularly when COVID cases are on the rise in Brooklyn and Queens. Picking a fight with Cuomo is something you do when you’re out of options and your back is to the wall. That suggests that Fithian and Greidinger understand the economics of blockbuster moviemaking. If something costs $300 million to produce and another $200 million to market, which a Bond movie easily does, you need to earn more than $800 million globally to break even (theater owners and studios essentially split ticket sales). You can’t reach those numbers without New York City, which is both a major source of box office revenue and a nucleus of taste-making. And if there are no blockbusters to screen, there’s no theater business. And if there’s no theater business, that means tens of thousands of people lose their jobs and there’s a cascade of bankruptcies.

It really bothers me when you go on Twitter and people boil it down to something as simplistic as “streaming wins!” I get that Netflix has more social media cred, but on a human level, the collapse of movie theaters is a cultural and economic catastrophe. Do studios have an obligation to essentially say f— it and release some big movies to prop up theaters? In that scenario, they lose money on individual movies in the short term, but recognize that preserving the theatrical distribution network is ultimately more important to their bottom lines.

OG: Brent, I think that’s exactly what the studios have to do. Because what you’ve just articulated is that moviegoing as we’ve known it for 100 years now faces an existential crisis. Even if we could magically wipe out the coronavirus today, the theaters face a crushing load of debt. It will take years for them to dig their way out. If the virus just drags on (which it might), the combination of debt and too small an audience could take them under. I’m not a pessimist, but there’s a chance that the whole thing could collapse — and if so, that would be a cultural tragedy. And one that could have been avoided.

I’m glad you raised the whole “streaming wins!” thing, because that strikes me as an incredibly facile and destructive point-of-view, a way of giving up the ghost too early. I’m not “anti-streaming,” or “anti-Netflix,” or anything like that. But moviegoing as we’ve known it has been more than a pastime — it’s been a faith, a primal joy, the greatest art form of the last century. Are we just going to lose that so we can spend the next 100 years sitting on our couches watching a never-ending stream of product? Moviegoing in theaters will survive if we as a culture — theaters, studios, politicians, audiences — decide that we want it to survive. And that means, I think, that the studios have to start playing the long game. They have to start figuring out a way to provide some major movies that will draw people back. Otherwise it could become a vicious cycle of audiences abandoning the theaters that they feel have abandoned them.

PD: I have more faith in this industry — and the audience — than that. But the pandemic has underscored how reluctant Hollywood is to adapt, just as they were to the rise of streaming. And if the studios don’t change, they risk their own extinction. There was a flurry of Zoom meetings last spring, as distributors and exhibitors put their heads together to figure out what the pandemic might mean, but the solutions that came of it — disinfectant protocols and social-distanced seating plans — didn’t seem to acknowledge how contagious COVID-19 is, or the reality that a vaccine may not be the magic wand the world needs to safely return to cinemas. They don’t pay me enough to solve such problems for them, but I think this outbreak called for a reinvention of how audiences can safely consume movies in a world where the communal joy of watching and laughing together now carries a potentially life-threatening risk.

There are a million solutions. Take something as simple as drive-in movie theaters, which have enjoyed a welcome resurgence as people look for ways to experience movies safely. (I’ve gone to two in the last week alone.) There have been a few urban pop-ups, but I don’t understand why studios didn’t lead the way on this, transforming airport parking lots and other suddenly underused spaces into a venue to show “Wonder Woman 1984” and so forth. They still could! Everyone’s waiting for the world to return to “normal,” but we now live in a world with COVID in it, and public activities need to be rethought. Back in 2013, George Lucas predicted this about the future of movies: “Going to the movies will cost 50 bucks or 100 or 150 bucks, like what Broadway costs today, or a football game.” Maybe that model could save an art form dealing with diminished capacities and the cost of retrofitting cinemas.

BL: The problem is that the business needs rescuing now — it doesn’t have time to evolve into a high-end indulgence. Just as our libertarian-leaning nation was poorly suited to deal with a pandemic that probably demanded a massive government response to curb the outbreak, so too is hyper-conglomerated Hollywood poorly positioned to meet this current crisis. In one corner, you have monster corporations, like AT&T and Comcast, that see their film-studio subsidiaries as marginal adornments to core businesses that sell people phones or broadband. They can wait 12 to 18 months without releasing movies while only suffering a small hit to their balance sheets. On the other side, there are a collection of corporate minnows, your Lionsgates, your MGMs, your STXEros, heck even your Paramounts, that are part of far smaller entertainment companies. One or two box office losers could be ruinous or at least acutely painful for this bunch. The gap between media leviathans and scrappy underdogs has never been wider. Gone are the kind of mid-sized players who even a few years ago would have been incentivized to step into the breach. Box office returns are either too critical to a studio’s survival for a company to take a risk or so insignificant that they can’t be moved to care too much about a year without movies.

PD: Right now, those smaller distributors are propping up the cinemas that have reopened, making up for the lack of tentpoles, as Bond and others keep pushing back their release dates. Just next weekend, the Freestyle-released “2 Hearts” will be opening on nearly 1,500 screens. Last month, indie thriller “Infidel” opened wide. Meanwhile, the bigger distributors are releasing their films abroad, which is screwing with the system in all kinds of ways. Let’s say that a New York-based Nolan super-fan wants to see “Tenet.” Should they drive/Uber their way to Hoboken, where cinemas are open? Is it worth flying to another country for the experience? (Suddenly, Lucas’ $150-per-ticket suggestion doesn’t seem so crazy.)

What’s frustrating to me right now is that the studios won’t even show these movies to press. Variety is an international publication, and we’ve always reviewed movies whenever they open in the world. But Warner Bros., Disney and even STX won’t show their films to American critics, either by link or in safe, limited-capacity screenings. But they will show them to critics abroad. What’s the difference? How is London any safer than Las Vegas for “Tenet” or Pixar’s “Soul”? Private screening rooms have been operating in Los Angeles since at least April, and I’ve been to eight in-theater movies in as many weeks. It is possible, and I can attest: The safe but solitary at-home experience is no comparison.

OG: Peter, that’s just one more example of the cognitive dissonance factor. Why show movies to critics abroad and not in the U.S.? Because the very idea of seeing a movie on the big screen in America has been tainted by COVID. No one is questioning that the experience needs to be made supremely safe. Yet there’s a perception-and-reality dynamic at work. Some people are scared to go back to the movies, but the larger issue is that between the streaming revolution, the rise of COVID, and the fact that so many viewers have been grousing about the theater experience for years (the ads, the cell phones, the sticky floors — we all know the mythic litany of complaints), the notion that going out to a movie simply isn’t worth the trouble has taken root.

But that’s a perception; it’s not a reality. It’s something that can change if we have the will to change it. This is an issue so layered it goes right to the top — by which I mean, it could be profoundly influenced by the presidential election. If Biden and the Democrats win big, I could easily envision them mobilizing to find the funds that could help sustain and ultimately save movie theaters; whereas Trump and the Republicans aren’t interested in saving anything but themselves. Years from now, we’ll look back on this moment not only as a health and financial and political crisis, but as one that raised essential cultural questions. Such as: Does this culture still believe in moviegoing? I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I do know this much: The choice is ours.