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Movie theaters have gone dark. What does this mean for their future?

Cinemark, AMC and Regal have all closed their theaters over the coronavirus. How will the pandemic affect the way we see movies?

In this May 11, 2005, file photo, people enter AMC’s Studio 30 theater in Olathe, Kan. Cinemark, AMC and Regal have all closed their theaters over the coronavirus. The pandemic may change the way we see movies forever.
In this May 11, 2005, file photo, people enter AMC’s Studio 30 theater in Olathe, Kansas.
Orlin Wagner, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — James Bond was the first casualty. “No Time to Die” was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. And then Disney pulled “Mulan.” Paramount silenced “A Quiet Place 2.” Universal hit the brakes on “F9.” And then, on Tuesday, everything came full circle when Disney announced its biggest blockbuster of the season, “Black Widow,” was to be spun out of theaters.

All these films were postponed from their traditional release dates because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to more than 200,000 cases across the world and almost 9,000 deaths. States, cities and local governments have taken measures to create social distancing. Some cities have even called for businesses, restaurants and bars to close.

And now, movie theaters are going dark.

As concern over coronavirus grew, movie theaters reduced their capacity. AMC dropped to 50% capacity. Utah’s Megaplex Theatres announced it would only allow 75 people per theater.

Then came more severe measures. Regal Cinemas and AMC Theaters canceled all shows. Cinemark suspended its run, too. Megaplex Theatres in Utah announced the same Wednesday.

At least temporarily, the new normal under the coronavirus pandemic is one without movie theaters. And the effects may last beyond the pandemic.

Eric Schiffer, CEO of The Patriarch Organization, a private equity firm based in Los Angeles, said we “are witnessing the single greatest destruction” of the American box office in history.

“A drive-by shooting by a virus that typically would have been on the screen as the antagonist but instead it is inside the theater,” he added. “This will change the way the box office operates for years to come and will speed up the push to streaming and the way in which films are released in the future.”

But the theater industry is banking on the big screen being a true experience that appeals to the “social nature of human beings.” The question is, how will the pandemic change or influence movie-viewing habits once life returns to normal?

But movie theaters were already in trouble

Before the coronavirus made its way stateside, experts told me movie theaters could face a reckoning. Streaming is the way of the future. And while theaters will have their place, several new movies could find their way onto streaming platforms first.

Movie theaters were already at the center of a changing industry. No longer would all movies drop at the box office and attract millions of customers. Fans could wait for the movies to reach Netflix or Amazon Prime. Or, as in the case of “The Irishman” or “Bird Box,” films could drop on streaming platforms before they even hit theaters.

So, experts said, movie theaters needed to change. Theater companies needed to create “events” that draw people in — experiences that you can’t get from sitting in your apartment.

Events like this include massive franchise releases like “Avengers: Endgame” or “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” Both films signaled the end of their respective sagas, and signaled a pop culture event that would draw everyone in, from the hardcore fan to the casual moviegoer. It’s no surprise these films also inspired movie marathons, where fans could watch all 22 or nine movies back-to-back.

I partook in both of those events. And they truly were experiences that heightened the excitement of the movies themselves. No longer was my moviegoing experience about seeing “Endgame.” I wanted to see all 22 Marvel films, giving me an extra reason to head to the theaters.

I had multiple conversations with theater executives over the last few months, and they told me more moments like those marathons were coming. A “Fast and Furious” marathon? Possibly. A James Bond marathon? Almost definitely.

Marathons, and unique experiences like them, are way the theater industry thrives, said Jeff Whipple, vice president of advertising, ,marketing and public relations for Megaplex Theaters.

“There is something wonderful when we get together to share these kinds of experiences, what that looks like going forward, and how guests interact is always changing,” Whipple said.

“The experience Megaplex offers guests is unique — big picture, big sound, a shared experience,” he added. “There is something magical about that experience that guests can experience the Megaplex. And we know we’ve already heard from our guests who are anxious for us to get back to regular business operation as quickly as possible.”

But coronavirus has become a massive speed bump on the track. After all, movie theaters — where patrons are jumping in and out of seats like a game of musical chairs and the person next to you could literally inches away — aren’t conducive to social distancing.

Will the coronavirus affect the theater industry the way 9/11 impacted the airline industry?

“I think that fear of catching this virus is going to linger for some time — that even if there’s an all clear, people are not going to rush to the movie theater,” Schiffer said. “There’s gonna be a long tail to this.”

The coronavirus has created a massive problem, said Whipple of Megaplex. But that doesn’t mean movie theaters won’t be ready for what comes next.

“The return to normal, whatever the new normal looks like, it’s going to obviously take some time. But we have full confidence that guests will be anxious to come back and experience great entertainment in great venues.”

Streaming and the post-pandemic future

Hollywood, though, has made a number of shifts.

Just look at Universal Studios. The company is releasing its in-theater films early on video on demand. For $19.99, you can rent movies like “The Hunt,” “Invisible Man” and “Emma” — even when the films were still in theaters. Disney released “Frozen 2” on Disney Plus, its subscription streaming platform, three months earlier than planned. “Rise of Skywalker” became available for purchase days early, too.

“Executives across Hollywood saw the move by Universal as an opening to experiment with a pay-per-view model that would allow consumers to gain immediate or near-immediate access to new movies in their homes for a premium price,” according to The New York Times.

Disney could release “Mulan” on Disney Plus, especially if the coronavirus continues to linger and never lets up, Schiffer said.

“If this lingers, you’re going to see anything that they have in the pipeline that isn’t going to age gracefully executed that way,” he said.

Companies may even consider how they set up the pricing for their streaming services. Such new releases could come at a premium.

“They’ll promote it just like they promote a movie but you’ll get it online,” he said.

But forecast of more new releases going to streaming platforms ignores some global financial realties, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners. The association released a statement challenging the “speculation in the media that the temporary closure of theaters will lead to accelerated or exclusive releases of theatrical titles to home streaming.

“Such speculation ignores the underlying financial logic of studio investment in theatrical titles,” the statement reads. “To avoid catastrophic losses to the studios, these titles must have the fullest possible theatrical release around the world. While one or two releases may forgo theatrical release, it is our understanding from discussions with distributors that the vast majority of deferred releases will be rescheduled for theatrical release as life returns to normal.”

According to the national group, movie theaters will thirst for a moviegoing experience since it’ll unite them together. It will provide a different experience than being at home.

“No one can precisely predict when public life will return to normal, but it will return,” the association said. “The social nature of human beings — the thing that exposes us to contagion, and that makes it so difficult to change behavior in response to pandemic threats — is also the thing that gives us confidence in the future. People will return to movie theaters because that is who people are.

“When they return they will rediscover a cutting edge, immersive entertainment experience that they have been forcefully reminded they cannot replicate at home.”

That’s how Whipple feels, too. He said everyone owns a kitchen but that doesn’t mean everyone wants to cook. Yes, we all own screens. We can watch movies however we want.

But the theater experience will never go away.

“The theater experience is one of those things that helps bring people together and helps people forget about the troubles of reality.”

“We’re looking forward to the time when people are ready to come back to the theaters and we’ll be ready.”