For weeks now, as COVID-19 restrictions across the country begin to ease (or, in some cases, even where they haven’t), national and local news outlets have relentlessly reported on a seeming torrent of people streaming into public spaces. The coverage points to a common sense understanding: Spending two months sheltering in place with little-to-no human contact has produced an overpowering need for people to gather together outside their homes.
According to an exclusive new study, however, that media coverage belies a deeper truth: Anxiety over health and safety in public spaces still greatly outweighs the desire to leave home, and that disparity has only gotten larger as the pandemic has unfolded. The results — from a survey of roughly 1,000 people in mid-May by sports and events analytics firm Performance Research, in partnership with Full Circle Research Co. — point to just how steep a climb the entertainment industry has in front of it to win back public perception that it’s safe to attend, and spend money on, public events again.
Take this answer to the question of whether respondents would rather see a first-run feature as a digital rental at home or in a movie theater, if both were available today: A whopping 70% say they are more likely to watch from their couch, while just 13% say they are more likely to watch at a local cinema (with 17% not sure).
“Just as the country begins to open up there has been a swing toward increasing caution, with a majority of Americans clearly saying ‘not yet’ when it comes to attending large public events,” says Jed Pearsall, president of Performance Research.
The top-line findings — especially in comparison with a similar Performance Research study conducted in mid-March — are equally stark. Even after the CDC and local governments say it’s safe to do so, 52% of respondents say they will attend fewer large public events, up from 44% in March, just days after the CDC declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. Even more striking: This month, 60% of respondents say the idea of attending a big public event “will scare me for a long time,” up from 47% in March.
Across just about every major industry sector, respondents have grown more fearful about stepping into public spaces: 39% say they’ll attend major indoor concerts less often, up from 33% in March; 36% say they’ll attend theme parks less often, up from 26%; and 33% say they’ll attend theater and performing arts venues less often, up from 29%.
For Broadway productions, a new line of inquiry in the May study, the news is especially worrying: 51% of respondents say it will take a few months before they will attend a Broadway show in New York even after it’s deemed safe to do so, and 16% say they may never go again.
The news for movie theaters is scarcely any better: 37% of respondents say they plan to attend less often, up from 28% in March, and 10% say they may never go again, up from 6%.
But for those who are considering returning to a movie theater, what may draw them there appears to be shifting. When asked which movie genres would most likely get them to buy a movie ticket, 43% of respondents, by far the highest percentage, say comedy — a near 180 in public sentiment after years of moribund box office returns by big screen comedies. The next most popular genre — drama, with 35% of respondents — has also all but disappeared from theaters. Meanwhile, the genre that has dominated the past decade, superhero action movies, came in third, with 33% of respondents selecting it — a startling number given the massive audiences comic book movies generally require to recoup. And horror, a dependable and inexpensive box office draw for years, drew interest from only 19% of respondents.
Of course, these responses were given for abstract genres and not specific titles, but they do suggest that, after two decades dominated by spectacle and escapism, spending so much concentrated time with other people could be leading public tastes closer to human-scaled storytelling.
Far more clear is what will most convince audiences to return to any public venue: Cleanliness and social distancing. Since March, already strong sentiment about the need for clean and sanitized food service areas and restrooms has only grown, from 64% to 74% and 66% to 73%, respectively. And despite some anecdotal evidence that mask requirements are unpopular, just 16% say mandatory face coverings at live events would decrease their likelihood of attending, as opposed to 61% who say it would increase it.
The number of people allowed to attend events is also a key factor, with broad majorities expressing comfort with just 60% capacity for every public venue surveyed.
Even with those precautions, people who do decide to attend public venues are likely to do only that: Just 47% of respondents say they’re comfortable with buying food and drinks from concession stands, and 46% say they’ll use the venue’s restrooms. (As for meet-and-greets, forget it: Just 19% say they’d participate, and 16% say they’ll line up for an autograph session.)
“Event organizers should take notice,” says Pearsall. “Fans of all types of events can identify significant milestones and new safety precautions that will get them back. Simply opening the doors will not be enough.”
Some other notable findings from the Performance Research study weren’t related to consumers’ feelings about public venues:
ONLINE PRICING: Asked how much a “reasonable” price would be to stream top-quality productions in their home, consumers have a surprising range of answers.
For a first-run movie, the most popular price is easily $10, with 47% respondents; 20% of respondents say they’d pay $20; and 19% of respondents say they’d only watch if the film was free (though some respondents could mean on a subscription streaming service). Just 6% of respondents say they’d pay $30; 3% say they’d pay $40; and 1% say they’d pay $50, $60, and (somewhat inexplicably) $80.
For a live musical production, the most popular price was, sadly, free, with 26% of respondents saying they’d watch if they could pay nothing. Another 25% say they’d pay $10; 20% say they’d pay $20; 11% say they’d pay $30; 5% say they’d pay $40; 5% say they’d pay $50; 2% say they’d pay $60 or $70; and 1% say they’d pay from $80 to over $100. (A live play had a similar pricing spread, with the $10 price slightly more popular than the free one.)
And for a live concert by a major artist, 21% of respondents say they’d only watch if it was free. Another 21% say they’d pay $10; 20% say they’d pay $20; 11% say they’d pay $30; 8% say they’d pay $40; 9% say they’d pay $50; and anywhere between 1% and 2% say they’d pay from $60 to over $100.
MUSIC: Speaking of live music, with concerts cancelled or postponed nationwide, the most popular outlet to watch live music virtually is easily YouTube: 57% of respondents say they’ve used the platform for live music, more than double the number for Facebook Watch (22%), Instagram Live (22%) or Zoom (17%). Perhaps not surprisingly, over 60% of respondents say price and sound and video quality are by far the most important factors in whether consumers decide to watch live music online.
SPORTS: There is some (mild) good news for the sports world in the study: 67% of respondents say they will watch the sports they follow on TV even when there are no crowds in attendance, and 59% say that even without fans in the stands, they want to see sports competitions come back as soon as possible. And there was a slight uptick in respondents who said they would attend indoor sports venues more often once they’re deemed safe, from 9% in March to 17% in May.
FINALLY: The ultimate arbiter for what will bring the most people back to public venues is the one that the entertainment industry has no control over: 90% say the most important factor is a cure for COVID-19.