Life Without Movie Theatres

In the time of COVID-19, people are going through hardship without some of the reliable comforts of tough times.

Movie Theaters
The historic Fox Theatre in Toronto has been closed to the public since mid-March and will remain so indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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.


The AMC Empire and Regal E-Walk in New York City’s Times Square.

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.”

An empty movie theater in Methuen, Massachusetts on March 29, 2020.

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.

Let's All Go To The Lobby (HD)
There are a lot of variables, but there are reasons to think that next year could mark a big comeback of the movie theatre.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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John Wilson is a freelance editor and award-winning feature writer, based in Toronto. His work has appeared in On The Danforth, Broadview and Today's Parent.

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47 Comments

  1. Rema
    2

    I guess what we need to ask outselves are, does the environment a film is watched in affect our enjoyment of it?

    And the answer is yes, massively so.

    People need to get out of their homes, need rituals of travel and events, community… cinema provides that.

    It’s a big silent cavern; no noise, we are isolated from the city noise distractions of aeroplanes, traffic, neighbours, family/flat mates, etc. Bar the few occasional rumples of popcorn (which have their own charm) I find critics in comments sections overstate noise from other audience members. And of course few at home have surround sound for that extra immersion.

    The big screen image is surrounded by blackness, different from the light distractions of your room and it’s decoration. Yes, even with the lights off, readily perceivable light is bouncing around your walls and distracting you from the film image.

    Size of the image on a big screen is another major factor. Seeing a close-up shot of your favourite actor or actresses crying face, amplified 20 metres high, has a power that no home screen can match.

    We get it new-tech business guys: it’s more profitable for you if you can teach us to accept only watching films via your so wonderfully designed laptops and macbooks, etc. Fewer staff, no building rent or maintenance, no wages to pay, and all that lovely data you can capture to derive further profit about us, etc etc

    But honestly… bugger off and let us have our art, our community, our collective love, our days out, our shared laughter. Life will return, and we will go on.

    • Amyus

      ‘But honestly… bugger off and let us have our art, our community, our collective love, our days out, our shared laughter. Life will return, and we will go on.’ Excellent! I couldn’t have put it better myself.

    • Harold
      0

      A lot of people are put off because of phones. I went the pictures with someone to see The Irishman. I was excited to see it in the cinema but after about 20 minutes he went on his phone and never put it down. Thankfully the film was a good watch so it passed by quick. Halfway through I had to say something in a polite way of course but he looked and treated me like I was a lunatic and he basically spoilt it. He was 39 years old as well. Never going the cinema with him again.

      I went to see Mad Max Fury Road when that was released and the four people who I was with decided they didn’t like it so they all pulled their phones out and I felt really embarrassed and also annoyed because they are spoiling the film not just for me but the people around them but the sad truth is they just don’t care. Call of Duty, Fifa, iPhone. Sums up many people today who are male.

    • Pino
      0

      Nicely put, Rema. One caveat, though, is that with some programmes we spend time pausing them to a) work out the plot or b) decipher what someone has just said or c) complain about a plot hole or ridiculous scene or d) point out an out-of-place extra or some awful piece of acting or e) point out some brilliant piece of acting or cinematography or directing, etc.

      Ok, we’re nerds but it makes us happy 🙂

    • We really got to maintain having communal social activities. I really don’t think covid-19 shouldn’t result in the total shift of businesses going online like those productions that would strictly release films on a streaming service. New films should be introduced to audiences so they could experience with other people (i.e friends, family, strangers) the story and intensity of acting. Perhaps instead of maintaining the traditional system of theatre where we all have to deal with the usual torments of being stuck in a room with many people (i.e munching popcorn, farting, kicking and phones), why not a smaller cinema with smaller grouped 4D film experiences. This would encourage more people to go out with their friends and family to actually experience a film instead of questioning, “why didn’t we just wait till it came out on Netflix?”

  2. Tommy
    0

    Like literature and opera, it is an art of the past. Cinema had its peak in the 20th century.

    • Wick
      0

      Yet the New York Metropolitan Opera is streaming a different opera every day into your home; I have no doubt that when the lockdown is over they will have an audience willing to pay to watch streamed opera in the same way that opera companies have shown transmissions of their operas in cinemas up to now. The market for high art is far bigger than can be fitted into opera houses and concert halls.

    • Have you seen Parasite?

  3. robman
    1

    The TV industry has also been hit hard. With shoots cancelled or postponed, as a self employed editor I have not worked in over a month and have nothing until August.

  4. Marcene
    1

    Ideally, one outcome of this could be a blossoming series of animated features. These, of course, can be assembled at leisure and do not require actors or other makers to be physically present and gathered in one place. Pure works of imagination untied from the physics of the possible, they have the potential to be really, really good.

  5. Sean Gadus

    I miss movie theaters so much. It is a special experience to go see a movie in a theater with dozens of excited people around me. I can never replicate the experience in my own home. It’s never the same to me.

    It’s clear that the model movie theaters have been working off of for the last 10 years is not sustainable. The Video On Demand market and Streaming Services are directly competing with movie theaters and have become more and more successful over the past ten years.

    Hopefully theaters can find a way to exist in some form when the epidemic finally trails off and people are allowed to go back to theaters.

  6. Amyus

    It’s ironic that despite the fear porn and closed cinemas I’m still finding work as a subtitler. Still, I hear that in some American states the old drive-in movie theatre is seeing a resurgence in attendance. How romantic. Hmm, I wonder if there will be an increase in births around nine months from now 🙂

  7. Poe
    0

    The film industry will bounce back eventually but in the meantime many of the people who work within it will be laid off. My son works for one of the bigger VFX companies. Last week all of their employees received letters telling them that significant numbers of jobs will be shed later in the year & those who are retained can expect pay cuts. VFX is already a precarious industry to work in & I feel very sorry for the FX artists who are facing such uncertainty.

    • Augusta
      0

      I work for a major vfx company and we’ve moved pretty swiftly to WFH, episodic and feature work is dropping, but animation in advertising is in high demand, as everyone tries to pivot and replace live-action. Pay cuts, furlough, and shedding freelancers is pretty universal. It’s an industry built on slim margins. So cash-flow is an issue.

  8. ezikiel
    0

    Will the theatres survive? With AMC teetering on the edge of administration in the US and Cineworld (who own picturehouse in the U.K. and regal in the US) warning they are struggling, the issue might not be the movie output but somewhere to see them in a theatre.

    • Valentin
      0

      I’ve had a lightbulb moment.

      How ’bout I put a big screen in a parking lot so that people can park their cars and watch a movie?

      I’m going to call it a drive-in.

  9. Retta
    0

    Cinema has been struggling for 15 years now. Rather like the museum sector, it resembles a social club for the posherati.

    Children’s films are the exception given the automatic audience requiring distraction. By extension, Megacorporate mergers have provided superhero franchises to the teenage audience who still treat movie theaters as a social venue.

    But adults have television, now bolstered by streaming choice. High concept TV dramas have supplanted the novel too.

    • Elli
      0

      I take your point about the ‘posherati’, but as cinema could be said to have been an evolution out of opera – high drama, music, FX – it is perhaps not surprising that it should fade out in the same way – though at least Glyndebourne takes its picnics between acts unlike those ghastly cinemas that serve drinks and meals during the film!! Listening to someone munching a bag of Revels is bad enough, but coq au vin washed down with a Singapore Sling ???

    • Crespo
      0

      I think we can include TV in this social club as well.

      Creative talent is not largely confined to a small handful of public schools and parts of London any more than political talent is.

    • Simone
      0

      Rubbish. In the last 15 years, every single year has seen higher admissions ticket sales than at any time since 1971.

  10. L33D
    0

    Coronavirus is a massive nail in The Cinema’s coffin.

    Not film and television, as they can easily and enjoyable consumed at home in comfort and safety.

    Going to a smelly, uncomfortable, overpriced cinema with 20 minutes of crappy ads and horrible food and drink will not be missed.

    You can buy a great 65” UHD TV for under a $1000 these days which is more than adequate for even a Nolan big screen experience. At $25 for a cinema ticket, it only takes 40 movies for the tv to pay for itself.

    Not to mention the streaming benefits and also the benefits when learning from home. However for Zoom or Skype work video calls, I’d suggest sticking to the laptop for the benefit of all.

    So in conclusion, the concrete, outdated, inconvenient cinema will be massively, negatively impacted by Coronavirus.

    • Alonso
      0

      The cinema will never die. Yes, sometimes I don’t go because I just can’t be bothered with the hassle of other people, which ironically is the one of the reasons I am going in the first place to watch it with an audience. I went to see a Fellini film before the lockdown in an art cinema with a smattering of young people but it was a full screening and afterwards I was amazed to seeing complete strangers actually having conversations about the film and they all seemed to absolutely adore the film which gave me great happiness. It also looked amazing on the big screen! This can’t be achieved on a 65 inch whatever in your living room.

    • Yoon
      0

      You have a kitchen. You can make the meal or even buy a take away from a restaurant, but people still sit and eat in restaurants.

      Even a smelly cinema with its big screen and sound system gives its customers an event different from their home.

    • Amal
      0

      It’s bad enough that some films only get shown for a week or two at a handful of expensive cinemas before going on to streaming services.

  11. Huey
    0

    Lock down is not ending anytime soon, so long as the virus has fresh victims.

    Sadly, the arts, culture, entertainment and hospitality will be the very worst hit as it is these industries that will remain in isolation for a year or more, a casualty of the non essential workplace. We will still see talent but in less orthodox ways.

  12. Caron
    0

    Although there might be a build-up of new movies waiting to be released in cinemas once normality returns, if there is going to be a drop in new movies getting made, could the studios re-release old movies and play them in the cinemas while the industry sorts itself out? Anything from Where Eagles Dare, to The Great Waldo Pepper to Out Of Africa. From The Searchers to Tootsie to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. As a favour to to society’s most senior citizens, and to introduce feeling into the youth of today, in our times now of digitised slaughter.

    • watty
      0

      I did see The Searchers at the cinema last year, and Once Upon a Time in the West, and The Wild Bunch, a part of Picturehouse Vintage Sundays western season. (The season also included Shane.)

  13. ian
    0

    Covid 19 may leave another huge dent in Cinema industry but film in general will always be desired and post covid, production will find a way to keep producing

    Everybody will always want to see, hear or read a good story.

  14. death
    0

    Where I live, multi-screen cinemas are being redeveloped into mixed entertainment complexes.

  15. After reading this, I wonder when theaters are allowed to reopen if people will be flocking to them more frequently because they have missed the simple ability to go to the movies? There is that group of people who claim they would rather watch a film at home, but I agree with other commenters that there’s really nothing like watching a movie in the theater. It’s a special experience. As you point out, something like Wonder Woman 1984 is meant to be seen on the big screen. It would definitely not bring the same energy at an in-home screening. And I certainly miss that feeling.

  16. i don’t think i’d live without a cinema. i love them

  17. Beltran
    0

    I’ve been led to believe Marvel movies are the single greatest threat to cinema since it’s inception somehow.

  18. While I agree that cinemas will likely experience a hell of a resurgence in 2021 due to their renewed novelty, I do worry that the cat’s kind of out of the bag now on big budget blockbusters being released successfully to streaming services. I can’t help but feel like the resurgence may not last too long

  19. Joseph Cernik

    It’s good to start to address the impact of this virus on different issues, such as here with movie theaters. I see some good points raised, no doubt difficult to raise everything. At this point all that can be expected is to address a few. Here we are just a few months after this virus started to take hold in a big and deadly way and slowly we are trying to understand what its long-term impact will be. A good job trying to address the virus’s impact on movie theaters.

  20. Munjeera

    Don’t forget that drive-ins may be making a comeback as well.

  21. really man, life without watching movies is boring. we can’t go in theatres due to COVID-19, not going for parties

  22. I know that the hospitality industry would be his hard by COVID-19, but I I’d mostly been thinking about cafes and restaurants. I knew cinemas would have to be closed for a while and could expects strict restrictions in the near future. But I hand’t even thought about small independent cinemas, which was a really interesting point. Selling the seats and putting plaques on is such a great innovative idea to help keep themselves afloat. It just proves how with a changing climate and other new world threats, business owners will have come up with creative solutions to ensure that they are successful.

  23. Although I think that nostalgia will drive people to movie theatres once restrictions lessen, theatres need to brainstorm new ways to market movie-going as an event. Besides arcade games and the concession stand, theatres should introduce entertainment events (like music and short films) to attract viewers. Move theatres should continuously try to re-invent themselves to remain relevant!

  24. I admit that not everyone will like the idea of going to movies. There’s transportation cost, movie ticket cost and popcorn cost. I’ve been to movie theaters as well as drive in outdoor movie theaters and I have to agree that it is indeed a special experience. An experience that is worth spending all that money for and with good company it’ll be one of the best memories. Before covid-19 began I went to watch a musical in Toronto and the atmosphere of the theater was unimaginable. It reminded me why we needed theaters in the first place.

  25. For quite some time, I’ve considered large movie theatre chains to be on their way out of the limelight of the popular entertainment industry. Online streaming platforms have ballooned to such an unprecedented degree, it was difficult to imagine a way in which both venues could continue to coexist. However, there are several ideas here that I hadn’t thought of. Selling naming rights is a brilliant idea, in that it is a way to maintain some income while also endearing the facility to those in the community. Smaller, more community-focused venues may outstrip larger, more corporate-based cinemas during this difficult time. The cost of maintaining such a large facility as a commercial movie theatre will not be endurable if all they have to offer is what moviegoers can get at home for free. Considering that, I believe that the strain of long-term closure, as risky as is, is enough to shake up the industry and force it to adapt to the times. We may see the experience of ‘going to the movies’ evolve in a way that allows it to endure longer than if it had remained two steps behind the rolling stone.

  26. Dr. Vishnu Unnithan

    It is up to us to utilise the current time to develop new effective alternate ways to simultaneously enjoy and thrive. Streaming services have radically changed the way we experience cinema. Probably, now is the time to give a big push to virtual reality. Individual movie booths could be developed. Every situation and setback opens up numerous possibilities only if we are willing to acknowledge.

  27. I typically go to the movies about once a month but it is always an event because I plan it out and it is hardly a spur-of-the-moment event. I have missed going out to see a movie on the big screen and cannot wait to go to a movie theatre again.

  28. Stephanie M.

    Interesting take on something not a lot of people are talking about during COVID-19. Growing up, my family rarely went to the movies. I still don’t, so going is somewhat special. Still, as I became an adult, I learned to dislike sharing a theater with strangers, paying exorbitant prices for snacks, etc.

    As you point out though, maybe going to the movies could become a common and pleasurable experience again if there were more and better “tentpole movies,” and if the focus shifted somewhat away from making the theater itself the experience. I’m reminded of things like singalongs for The Sound of Music, Rocky Horror, and Frozen, where there is a shared social aspect outside of just sitting near random people. Maybe if theatrical releases were more like “watch parties?”

  29. Samantha Leersen

    I think that, while people are missing movie theatres (and concerts, exhibits, etc.) the inventive ways of delivering media to audiences that have arisen during this time are quite fascinating. Can this create a legacy, perhaps? For example, live streaming concerts for people who are not able to physically attend, or offering more virtual events like interactive art classes even after everything opens.
    I feel as though this has presented many opportunities for the entertainment industry, and I am interested to see what remains in place after the lock-down is over.

  30. Beyond the fact that a theater offers a unique experience in terms of environment, I think it’s also important to note that filmmakers produce films that are intended to be viewed and enjoyed on the big screen. Even a large TV can’t replicate that. I can only hope that movie theaters pull through the pandemic.

  31. EdwardMcCarroll

    I miss the cinema so bad.

  32. Joseph Cernik

    I commented earlier on this article, but I would suggest that you continue to follow this issue and see what develops as the cooler weather comes along and the Flu season: There might be a follow-up essay based on developments that are still unfolding.

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