More States Let Movie Theaters Open, But Things Are Far From Normal

More States Let Movie Theaters Open,
Variety Intelligence Platform

If you’re someone who can’t wait to get back to the cinema and also values personal space, the next few months could be the best moviegoing experience of your life – if you can handle wearing a mask and live in the right state, that is.

The reopening of the United States has proven to be a clunky, inconsistent and anxious process, and the resumption of movie theater operations is closer to the bottom of many states’ listed priorities. Still, that didn’t stop states like Georgia and Texas from jumping the gun in late April, and a multitude of states across the midwestern and southern U.S. have since followed suit in a predictably partisan pattern. 

As of June 1, nineteen states are permitting brick and mortar locations to operate under a wide range of restrictions, including mandatory temperature checks upon entrance. Similar to what was implemented by the biggest theater chains prior to nationwide lockdowns, all theaters operating must now adhere to enforcing capacity limits for seats. While Texas required a 25% limit for seats upon letting cinemas open, more recent states to follow suit are already willing to relax this limit, with Kentucky’s theaters opening at 33% capacity for screens and Alabama going as high as 50% for all entertainment venues.

However, the actual enforcement of these restrictions already differs on a regional basis. While Kansas City is maintaining the 50% capacity rule for entertainment venues in Missouri, the more rural Johnson County has made restrictions voluntary. A return to normalcy for theaters doesn’t only depend on how seriously specific states take the virus, but also where the population centers are.

Given that states like California and New York are home to some of the busiest metropolitan areas, contributing major chunks of domestic box office gross as a result, the income stream for exhibitors won’t see major spikes until the other 31 states have given their cinemas the pass to operate on a statewide basis. So while film lovers in the Finger Lakes may rejoice sooner, those in New York City, the lifeblood of the limited release and independent market, will have to wait a while longer.

Although cinemas can operate in more than a third of states, the biggest nationwide exhibitors are keeping their locations closed and have yet to determine the exact dates they will open, while smaller chains and even independent theaters haven’t exactly been enthusiastic about opening, given the renovations necessary to stay in line with state guidelines, lack of films to show, and the health risk still imposed by COVID-19. Only 3% of sites across the country were screening films by Memorial Day weekend, and theater operators are a far cry from selling out what little seats are available to fill.

An undeniable reason for the tumbleweed situation at these theaters is the variety of streaming services doing the heavy lifting for home entertainment, with HBO Max having joined the crowd on May 27. But another unexpected contributor to low attendance is the resurgence of drive-in sites, with nearly 200 locations open across the country. 

Even states like California, which Comscore recorded as having the busiest drive-in site from April 24 – May 13, are okay with drive-ins staying open, provided they uphold social distancing procedures. This resurgence has also inspired indoor exhibitors like Marcus Theatres to utilize their own building facades as temporary drive-in sites while they plan their reopening strategies.

As relieving as these drive-ins must be for families seeking some degree of normalcy throughout the pandemic, they’ve done nothing to alleviate the fear of major studios, who are still waiting until late July and August to release new tentpoles after this unexpected hiatus, allowing unlikely distributor IFC Films to enjoy a moment in the spotlight as their catalog has become a mainstay of the few open locations. 

But this moment is short-lived, as Paramount just acquired dramedy “Mighty Oak” for an intended June 5 release across indoor and drive-in sites, two months ahead of a new “SpongeBob” film which would have been their first post-lockdown film to hit theaters. 

How “Mighty Oak” performs at a shrunken box office could very well impact “SpongeBob,” as key box office markets in more liberal regions like New York City are included in the tail end of phased reopening plans, and these regions may not necessarily meet the required goals in time. Even once every state has approved brick and mortar locations to open, it will still be a while before the box office returns to its normal state of being, and analysts are already projecting that the domestic box office could hit a two-decade low in gross by year’s end.

Just how much this low amounts to depends on when the more cautious states decide it’s time to test the socially distanced waters at their own cinemas, along with when the studios are finally comfortable with letting the rest of their 2020 dates stay in place.

This is an expansion from Variety Intelligence Platform’s “Movie Exhibition & Streaming” special report covering how the film exhibition business has been impacted by COVID-19 and streaming services. Subscribers can access the full 32-page report here.