Movie theaters in Los Angeles are primed to reopen in the coming days, a milestone that could carry outsized significance in efforts to revive the beleaguered theatrical film business.
As cinemas across the U.S. have begun resuming business amid the pandemic, box office ticket sales have remained frustratingly low. That’s partially because with shuttered venues in Los Angeles and New York City, studios haven’t been releasing many major movies.
But that could change now that moviegoers can return to multiplexes in two of the most popular movie markets. The official word for L.A. theaters could come as early as Thursday, though it’s unclear when cinemas will actually be able to resume operations. For the time being, Hollywood’s attention has hinged on Disney and Marvel’s superhero adventure “Black Widow,” which is due in theaters on May 7. Despite several Disney movies debuting simultaneously on the Disney Plus streaming service, the company’s CEO Bob Chapek has reaffirmed numerous times that “Black Widow” is “currently” set to open theatrically in early May.
Does the reopening of Los Angeles theaters help solidify those plans? Media analysts suggest that’s possible.
“There’s definitely momentum building. All of the signs are pointing to ‘Black Widow’ staying,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro. But then again, he’s quick to point out, the pandemic has been guilty of upending even the best laid plans. “It’s wise for everyone to keep an open mind,” he adds.
It’s fair to be extra cautious, particularly because Marvel movies like “Black Widow” carry gargantuan production budgets — not to mention the many millions more spent to market and promote the film to worldwide audiences. Then, it becomes almost impossible for the studio to make money back if the film plays to nearly empty auditoriums.
“There are certain types of films that work in this release paradigm,” says box office analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations. He’s referring to films with smaller price tags, such as Paramount’s “A Quiet Place Part II” and Universal’s crime thriller “Nobody.” “It’s hard to justify it with $100-million [budgeted] films.”
Robbins notes that “Black Widow,” as well as the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a global franchise. “L.A. reopening will add to that confidence,” he says. “But it will rely on domestic and international revenues.”
To that end, movie theaters overseas could actually provide some assurance. Chinese cinemas in particular have been doing brisk business, and the country has already witnessed record-breaking ticket sales. Over the Chinese New Year alone, the box office collected $1.2 billion in just six days. Marvel is a huge draw just about everywhere, and China is no exception. The more recent standalone adventures like “Captain Marvel” and “Black Panther” generated north of $100 million in China, while mashups like “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Endgame” grossed $359 million and $629 million, respectively.
There’s also the issue of timing and relevancy. “Black Widow” has been on the back burner for more than a year as “WandaVision” on Disney Plus has branded itself as appointment television. Marvel hasn’t had a miss in a decade, and the franchise has a lot of new projects in the pipeline, including “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness” and “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” on Disney Plus, to name a few. There’s also “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which is from Sony but intersects with the Disney property and is expected to premiere in theaters this year. Having Disney Plus, with its 100 million paid subscribers, means the studio has one of the most sure-fire backstops. There’s still a chance that Disney could do a hybrid release, as the studio recently deployed with “Mulan” and “Raya and the Last Dragon,” though Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has reportedly tried to squash the idea of having one of his films debut simultaneously in theaters and on streaming.
Getting theaters on the coasts to reopen is a positive and important step, but it’s possible that studios may wait until venues are able to operate at a higher capacity before unveiling movies in a more traditional fashion. Currently, theaters in NYC and L.A. can only be 25% full. Regal Cinemas, for instance, is relying on a similar logic. The company closed all of its U.S. venues in August due to the lack of attendance and doesn’t plan on returning until capacity restrictions expand to 50% or more. Until then, the theater chain doesn’t believe it can operate profitably.
Bock predicts that when it comes to release dates sticking, Hollywood studios will be relying on a “wait and see game.”
“It’s all dependent on consumer confidence now,” Bock says. Even with vaccinations, “we don’t know what kind of post traumatic stress disorders people have in terms of going out and being comfortable in their old routines.”
With President Biden’s proclamation that the general public would have access to the COVID-19 vaccine by May, “A Quiet Place Part II” moved up to May 28 (it was previously set for September) and “Fast and Furious” sequel “F9” shifted back to June 25, but intends to stay in summer. In the case of “A Quiet Place Part II,” releasing it in May means it will be available sooner for subscribers of Paramount Plus, Viacom’s new streaming service. That gives the streamer a buzzy new title as it looks to attract subscribers. Plus, the sequel’s production budget is minuscule compared to installments from superhero and action franchises.
For other buzzy blockbuster-hopefuls, it will likely depend on how the domestic box office fares in the next two months. Last weekend, overall revenue in North America reached $25 million, which ranks as the best turnout in a year. But that’s still a pretty pathetic showing.
Ideally, should ticket sales continue to rebound, analysts believe there could be some semblance of a summer movie season. That would be a relief to film exhibitors, because the stretch between May and August is usually one of the busiest for moviegoing and sees new tentpoles debut every week. However, studios may not pack the release calendar as tightly.
“Movies need to play longer, and the only way is to not cannibalize each other,” he says. Traditionally, he notes, films make a bulk of their revenues in the first few weekends. “It’s a complete 180 now. Every film has to be a ‘Titanic’ or ‘The Greatest Showman.'”