July Is Not the Grand Return to Cinemas Anyone Hoped For

July Is Not the Grand Return

When Texas and Georgia announced they would allow movie theaters to reopen around early May, the backlash was swift and dripping with partisan contempt, and some theater owners at the time decided against reopening so quickly.

Two months later, almost the entire country has entered the uncharted territory of allowing citizens to congregate in the face of an ever-persistent viral outbreak. As of today, every New England state is letting indoor cinema operations resume (Massachusetts was the last hold-out).

At this point there no longer appears to be a discernible pattern between how red states and blue states are approaching the reopening of their cinemas, with inconsistent seating capacity limits imposed across states with wildly different voting histories from one another.

So far, only Arizona has elected to completely walk back its decision to let theaters operate statewide. While California is in the throes of rising COVID cases, its decision to cease the resumption of theaters has been on a case-by-case basis, so far only affecting L.A. and eighteen other counties.

Some states were hesitant to grant theaters permission to operate on an immediate statewide basis due to the consequences on display in Arizona, California, and other states. Washington began granting certain counties Phase 3 permissions allowing cinema operators to open their doors again about a month ago, but as of now only 17 of 39 counties are in this phase, with cases spiking in the state’s significant population centers.

Other states that have elected to reopen theaters on a county-by-county basis are Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Similarly, Florida has granted permission to all but two counties, while Massachusetts’ thumbs up to theaters today doesn’t include Boston, which is expected to take another week before following suit.

New York also plans to address the theater situation on a regional basis, and is taking an overly cautious approach as conditions in NYC continue to improve, moving the city into a new phase of reopening that won’t include cinemas just yet.

Film buffs in Arizona may feel disappointed, but it’s not like they were cut off from a thriving cinematic schedule right now. Major distributors have delayed their July blockbusters to August, leading to a ripple effect of top exhibitors delaying their own plans to reopen locations en masse throughout this month.

Even if the situation in Arizona clears up sooner than expected, key markets like New York and Los Angeles will still be closed, and major chains like AMC, Regal and Cinemark must now watch release date developments like a hawk, since they aim to be up and running before their box office debuts.

Ahead of its closest competitors, Cinemark has already begun its partial reopening (AMC and Regal will begin opening locations during the last two days of July), but a check of its website shows only five locations (four in Texas, one in Florida) are actually open, with the next wave of tentative openings to continue July 24. As of the June 26th weekend, only 18% of the country’s theaters were operating, per Comscore.

Given that exhibitors will already have to contend with the varying capacity limits being imposed in states letting them operate once films come back, it makes little to no sense to remain open now aside from sheer survival. Even in states setting the seating cap at 50%, social distancing must still be observed, which means screenings by and large will not be hitting that limit.

Only Arkansas, Delaware, North Dakota and Rhode Island are allowing seating capacity above 50%, but these states are nowhere near as lucrative to the box office as California, which is on the stricter end of capacity limits, so big distributors will remain unswayed from their current reservations toward releasing films right now.

Arizona certainly isn’t missing much, and the best bet for theaters remains waiting. The offerings must at least be somewhat conducive in order for people to justify the health risk to venture through theater doors again. For now, July is set to be another summer month devoid of new theatrical releases, regardless of the push to keep opening states up.

This is an expansion from Variety Intelligence Platform’s “Industry Impact: COVID-19” special report examining how the first three months of the pandemic provide ample data for beginning to comprehend the impact across a broad array of key performance indicators in TV, film, streaming, audio and other sectors. Subscribers can access the full 29-page report here.