RIP: Are Movie Theaters Headed for the History Books?

RIP: Are Movie Theaters Headed for the History Books?

Regal theaters are closing temporarily. Is this just one more sign the days of the movie theater are now squarely in the past? 

The movie exhibition industry had a clear plan: re-open American movie theaters around Labor Day for the fall season, with director Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited “Tenet” ushering in the return of traditional moviegoing. The hope is this would lead to a fall prestige movie season that might not look like a typical year, but would still give the theaters some revenue, as the coronavirus pandemic hopefully receded.

That’s not how it worked out. “Tenet” failed to draw large audiences in the United States, as movie fans remained so spooked by the coronavirus pandemic that most of them avoided theaters. Most weeks this fall, the top movies at the box office have earned in the low-single-digit millions. It also didn’t help the exhibition industry that several major cities, including New York and Los Angeles, were lockdown.

As a result, several major blockbusters set for fall release, including the Marvel movie “Black Widow,” had their releases once again pushed back, to 2021 in the last few weeks. And last week, “No Time to Die,” the upcoming James Bond movie whose move from its planned release date last April was the first big movie delay from the pandemic, was delayed again, this time from November to April 2021.

With the likelihood that no big theatrical releases are coming for the rest of 2020, the parent company of the Regal cinema chain announced Monday that it will temporarily close its 536 theaters in the United States, starting on October 8. Reports over the weekend had stated that Regal’s British parent company, Cineworld, was considering such a move, but the Monday announcement made it official.

Regal did not say when its theaters might reopen.

“This is not a decision we made lightly, and we did everything in our power to support a safe and sustainable reopening in the U.S.—from putting in place robust health and safety measures at our theatres to joining our industry in making a collective commitment to the CinemaSafe protocols to reaching out to state and local officials to educate them on these initiatives,” Mooky Greidinger, CEO of Cineworld, said in a statement.

“We are especially grateful for and proud of the hard work our employees put in to adapt our theatres to the new protocols and cannot underscore enough how difficult this decision was.”

Greidinger added that “there has been no evidence to date linking any COVID cases with cinemas,” which appears to be true.

The other major multiplex chain in America, AMC Theaters, has not announced plans to close, although S&P Global last week warned that AMC risks running out of liquidity within six months, “unless it is able to raise additional capital, which we view as unlikely, or attendance levels materially improve,” the Hollywood Reporter said.

So what is the future of the exhibition industry, and can it survive? That’s unclear. A large group of Hollywood luminaries, including directors, producers, and the industry associations for both the motion picture and exhibition industries, wrote a letter to Congress last week, asking for aid in order to stave off the “existential crisis” afflicting theaters. Congress is currently haggling over a new coronavirus aid package, although it’s not known if a theater rescue is on the table in such talks.

It would appear likely that once the pandemic is over, or at least once an effective vaccine has been administered to much of the population, moviegoers will be comfortable once again going to the movies. Although no one knows how long a wait we’re looking at for that.

What would happen if theaters are closed for another extended period of time? Bankruptcy for the chains is a distinct possibility, with likely even worse news for smaller chains, standalone repertory theaters, and other non-multiplex theaters.

Could Netflix, Amazon, or even Disney or WarnerMedia, step in to buy AMC or Regal out of bankruptcy? Amazon was rumored to be in talks to buy the AMC chain earlier this year, although nothing came of it. But the recent overturning of the Paramount Decrees, the 1940s ruling that disallowed movie studios from owning theaters, a hurdle to such a takeover has been removed.

Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.

Image: Reuters