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Movie theaters made a big comeback last weekend. Were you watching?

Popcorn. Soda. Sticky floors. Loud monsters. We’re about to return to the movies. But what should we expect?

Popcorn. Soda. Sticky floors. Loud monsters. We’re about to return to the movies. But what should we expect?
Alex Cochran, Deseret News

“A Quiet Place II” has absolutely smashed the box office so far this weekend with a $57 million debut, which is about in line with what a movie would make before the pandemic even began.

Why the film’s earnings are “particularly notable is that they are roughly in line with what the movie was projected to make prior to the pandemic. That, of course, never played out according to plan,” according to NBC News.

Not to be outdone, “Cruella” — Disney’s new live-action film that was also released (for a price) on Disney+ — earned $26.5 million over the weekend, too, according to NBC News. It’s unclear how many people downloaded it on the streaming service, though.

And then there’s “Wrath of Man,” the R-rated action film with star Jason Statham that drew $22.8 million in its own right.

So it seems, in short, people are returning to movies.

Now let’s not forget — movie theaters have been open for a while. It was last summer when we started to see the major chains — from AMC to Cinemark to Regal — begin opening their doors to customers who wanted to watch a movie during the pandemic. Only a few major new movies have come out — from “Tenet” to “Mulan” to the recent ones like “Godzilla vs. Kong” and the upcoming “Mortal Kombat.”

The United States is at an odd point in the coronavirus pandemic. As vaccinations continue, about one-third of the country has been vaccinated against the novel coronavirus. Some people are taking off their masks and spending time with friends indoors, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. Others still wait for their COVID-19 shots. We also don’t know who has or hasn’t been vaccinated.

The American movie theater is open, but there are almost no new movies to see. And the movies that are available are either local films, religious holiday spectacles or some low-end blockbuster films that didn’t get the luxury of the big-time release.

Right now, summer blockbusters — the Marvel films, the “Fast and the Furious” saga and so many other big pictures we’d see right now — remain hidden behind studios’ film reels.

Soon, those films will be back. “Black Widow” comes out in July. “F9” is scheduled for next month. Major productions will soon be back in the box office. And, assuming millions are vaccinated and the coronavirus had been defeated, people will come back en masse to the theaters.

What it’s been like during the pandemic

Megaplex Theatres — a movie theater chain that had its beginnings in Utah but has expanded to Idaho and Nevada — has been one of the few movie theaters to remain open during the entire pandemic. The theater chain has done things outside of just showing movies. It’s hosted food and toy drives, became a polling place during the 2020 election and most recently, has used its theater locations as vaccination sites for the coronavirus vaccines.

But at the end of the day, the theater chain is still a theater chain. And lately, Megaplex has seen more and more people filter into showings.

The ticket booth is illuminated at the Megaplex Theatres at Jordan Commons in Sandy on Thursday, March 11, 2021.
The ticket booth is illuminated at the Megaplex Theatres at Jordan Commons in Sandy on Thursday, March 11, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“Our team at Megaplex enjoys watching movie fans reenter the theater for the first time since coming out of quarantine,” said Blake Andersen, Megaplex Theatres president. “We’ve seen guests tear up as they see the flashing lights surrounding the movie posters or catch a whiff of freshly popped popcorn. We appreciate the comments as guests tell us how much they have missed coming to Megaplex and consider the theaters a ‘home away from home.’”

Should we go back to the movies?

Megaplex understands navigating the waters of a post-pandemic world will be difficult. When do you get rid of masks? Do you require vaccination cards? So many questions surround the return to the movies. Megaplex plans to work with the state of Utah as it makes its decisions.

“We’ll continue to work closely with state and local experts, as well as industry sources, to help us identify the best time to expand our capacity. Our goal is to provide guests the best and safest entertainment experience possible,” Andersen told the Deseret News.

The theater chain will still follow the guidelines set out from the National Organization of Theatre Owners (NATO), which announced the Cinema Safe pledge early in the pandemic. It also follows the guidelines created by the Utah Cinema Promise. These promises aim to create a clean and safe environment for people to see movies in theaters.

There are still questions about whether movie theaters are safe. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House medical adviser on the coronavirus, said he wouldn’t attend movie theaters yet, according to Yahoo News.

Karah Altman, left, Ann Crissman and Rebecca Armitage, get drinks and popcorn prior to a movie at the Megaplex Theatres at Valley Fair Mall in West Valley City on Thursday, June 18, 2020. After three months of temporary closure due to COVID-19 restrictions, Larry H. Miller Megaplex Theatres are resuming modified business operations.
Karah Altman, left, Ann Crissman and Rebecca Armitage get drinks and popcorn prior to a movie at the Megaplex Theatres at Valley Fair Mall in West Valley City on Thursday, June 18, 2020. After three months of temporary closure due to COVID-19 restrictions, Larry H. Miller Megaplex Theatres are resuming modified business operations.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“I don’t think I would — even if I’m vaccinated — go into an indoor, crowded place where people are not wearing masks,” Fauci said.

That said, there’s an argument to be made that movie theaters — especially with reduced capacity — are safer than restaurants. In a movie theater, you wear your mask and you don’t talk. Maybe you take it off for popcorn or soda. But you’re not making noise, for the most part. At restaurants, you’re talking, laughing, slobbering all over your food. There’s more of a chance for the virus to get out there. This is the basic version of the argument that Derek Thompson of The Atlantic has made for quite some time. The risk is low at a movie theater, and yet there’s a constant fear about going to see a movie there. Maybe we’re not ready for a packed theater like we would have seen for “Avengers: Endgame.” But a quiet movie on a Sunday where there are maybe three other people? Seems safe enough if you’ve been vaccinated. Of course, science needs to be considered.

The future of movie theaters

Safety aside — there’s also a huge storm cloud looming over movie theaters right now, almost literally. Streaming has taken a turn for the better since movie theaters closed. We’ve known about the coming battle between streaming and movie theaters for years. Netflix has tried to release new movies on its platform, and movie theaters have kept an eye on streaming to make sure the releases weren’t exclusive to those platforms.

The pandemic changed all of that. Now, we have new movies released directly on streaming platforms for those who don’t want to watch in a movie theater. Disney+ released “Mulan” through streaming — for an additional $30 fee — and plans to do the same for “Black Widow.” Meanwhile, Warner Bros said it would release all of its biggest films on HBO Max and in theaters at the same time. We’ve seen this already with “Godzilla vs. Kong” and “Wonder Woman 1984.”

So what happens next? Movie theaters will bring people back, sure, But it’s anyone’s guess what this means for the streaming platforms. Will the current status hold where films are released on streaming and in movie theaters? Or will streaming be held back and studios will go theater-exclusive?

The future remains wide open for what’s next.

But the return to the movies might not happen until 2022. Sure, movies will continue to hit the box office for the rest of 2021. But the uncertainty of the virus and its variants, as well as the vaccination rollout, might mean there won’t be a full return until next year.

B. Riley’s analyst Eric Wold told Deadline he doesn’t see a huge boom for the box office until 2022. It’s at that point that people will feel comfortable returning to the theaters.

People feel similarly. About 46% of people surveyed by MKM Partners said they’d return to the movies within the next three months. But close to 72% said they’d prefer returning to the theaters in six months (clearly there are some people who said both three and six months work for them), according to ComicBook.com.

Is there something for theaters to take away from all of this? Of course. The movie theater will always have demand. It offers something different than your couch and your home. For the last year, people have been cooped up in the small confines of their homes, waiting for the pandemic to end.

The movie theater will be one escape for people that won’t end on a cliffhanger.

“At Megaplex Theatres, we’re more determined now than ever before to ensure the best guest experience possible,” Andersen said. “People continue to have a variety of entertainment options. Megaplex will continue to celebrate the guest experience of going out and enjoying a great story in a comfortable auditorium with state-of-the-art projection and audio, snacking on freshly popped popcorn with real butter, sipping on a favorite beverage, while sharing the experience with family and friends.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to that.