Life Without Movie Theatres
In the time of COVID-19, people are going through hardship without some of the reliable comforts of tough times.
Daniel Demois, co-owner of Toronto’s historic Fox Theatre, has said “it’s hard to pay rent if you’re not open.” But the theatre, which closed on March 14 and will remain that way for the forseeable future, is staying engaged with its customers by having a seat sale. For $150 (plus tax), patrons can have their name or a dedication inscribed on a plaque that will be mounted on seats in the theatre. The thinking behind the idea is that, once social distancing measures are eased, people can actually sit in seats with their name on it.
People in the city’s vibrant east end community, many of whom have been coming to The Fox for decades, have been looking for creative ways to keep the second-run theatre afloat through the pandemic, such as purchasing gift cards or renewing memberships early. Demois and his business partner Andy Willick got their seat-selling idea from the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa, which has so far sold naming rights to auditorium seats, projectors, popcorn machines, bathroom stalls, urinals and more.
Independent cinemas can use all the help they can get right now. Even if social distancing measures are eased by June or July, every major release theatres like The Fox and Mayfair theatres would have relied on is getting delayed by six months or longer. The uncertainty is stressful.
But for now, The Fox is still in business with virtual screenings. They’re currently screening the first-run picture Bacurau, an arthouse Brazilian thriller from the director of Neighboring Sounds, Kleber Mendonça Filho. Kino Lorber, which is distributing the film, decided to keep the spirit of a theatrical release for the film, even if physical spaces are inaccessible. So instead of sending the film straight to streaming and VOD, they have partnered with independent cinemas to host limited-run virtual screenings, with a cut of the profits going to theatres.
Despite a flurry of delays at the major studios, Warner Bros. has not yet changed its mid-July release date for Christopher Nolan’s expensive new thriller Tenet. The White House, meanwhile, recommended on April 16 that movie theaters be allowed to reopen once the pandemic begins to subside, though with social distancing protocols in place. Hollywood studios are hopeful that many cinemas will be able to bump up the lights by the beginning of July. In that case, Tenet could launch a truncated summer movie season, albeit with lower box office expectations than the studio would have anticipated last year.
If audiences are going to risk their lives (literally) to go back to theaters, it would be for a big-budget, highly-anticipated film from a powerhouse director like Nolan. After all, audiences overcame any second thoughts following the 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado to flock to theaters for the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, earning the film $160 million in box office receipts on its domestic debut.
Robert Pattinson, soon to be Batman, and Denzel Washington’s son John David Washington are the stars of Tenet, and neither actor has exactly been hitting home-runs with their recent films. So, the comparison to Nolan’s previous films with stars like Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jessica Chastain may be shaky. But, critically, Tenet is not part of a franchise, so if audiences don’t show up in July, there’s no brand to be damaged like there would be in the case of an underperforming Wonder Woman 1984 or No Time to Die. Nonetheless, Tenet, which Warner Bros. expected to be would be one of the the year’s top-grossing blockbusters, should be an interesting guinea pig to gauge whether North America and the rest of the world is ready to go to the movies again.
There are a lot of unknowns, such as whether China’s cinemas will successfully reopen in May as currently planned, or if inconsistent social distancing measures from country to country fail to flatten the curve globally by June. And Nolan is powerful enough that, if he were to request a delayed release date from Warner Bros., he would likely get it.
The thought of sitting in tight quarters with a group of total strangers is unfathomable right now, and the big question for movie theatres and distributors is whether people will want to go back to the movies once public health officials deem it safe to do so.
From a business standpoint, things are dire for independent cinemas and large theater chains alike. AMC is on the verge of bankruptcy, while several studios are sending new releases straight to streaming services. But Dr. Marney White, a clinical psychologist and behavioral sciences professor at Yale, holds a more optimistic view of the future of movie theaters. As she recently told NBC News, “I think [movie theaters] will become even more enjoyable and more cherished when this is all over.”
It would be easy to say that this pandemic will mark the end of the traditional moviegoing experience. To be sure, streaming and VOD services provide the ultimate social distancing viewing experience. But the reality is that theaters and streaming/VOD services have coexisted for years, and the movie theater experience is still impossible to replicate at home.
There was a trend in the movie industry, one the coronavirus may have merely exacerbated, toward movie theaters becoming more like theme parks or video game arcades, only existing as a showcase for the most immersive movies that couldn’t be experienced in a similar way at home. But that is ultimately the fault of moviegoers, many of whom have avoided the kind of original cinema they frequently complain Hollywood doesn’t make anymore.
In its VOD opening, Trolls World Tour earned a reported $50 million for its producer Universal. It was an unprecedented move for the studio, making this one of the few films to completely forgo a theatrical release. Disney has followed suit, with Artemis Fowl heading straight to Disney+ and Paramount’s The Lovebirds being sold to Netflix. Critically, however, none of those titles are blockbusters. There is a flood of options available for home viewing, but no studios are releasing major titles in the midst of this shutdown. Otherwise, we could all be watching Mulan from the comfort of our homes.
The dearth of tentpole movies being released right now is an indicator of the Hollywood studios’ reluctance to release their biggest titles through non-traditional means. The studio behind Trolls World Tour is also responsible for F9, which was expected to be one of the biggest box office hits this year and has now been bumped to 2021. The success of Trolls doesn’t portend a major sea change in the way movies are distributed. Universal has simply taken the lemons COVID-19 gave them and made lemonade.
The communal experience that makes moviegoing enjoyable is, of course, the very thing public health experts are concerned about right now. But there may be a light and the end of the tunnel for the multiplex. In fact, 2021 has the potential to be a record-setting year at the box office, considering the number of big, studio movies that have been pushed to next year due to the pandemic. There are a lot of variables, but there are reasons to think that next year could mark a big comeback of the movie theater.
Toronto’s Paradise Theatre, which just reopened in 2019 following renovations, was among the first independent cinemas in the city to adopt a “virtual theatrical” model of screening movies during the shutdown. The virtual screenings have been a great way for independent theatres to stay connected with audiences, and The Paradise is paying it forward by donating two tickets to frontline workers for every digital ticket sold. Once social distancing measures are lifted, people will be able to embrace the opportunity to connect in person and leave their homes, and when that happens The Paradise is committed to treating the essential workers who are keeping things running to a great night out. What a positive outcome from an unprecedentedly tumultuous time that would be.
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