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Movie theaters are caught in the middle

The movie theater industry thinks it might not survive the pandemic. Others believe it can, leaving theaters stuck in the middle.

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Robert Pattinson and John David Washington in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Tenet.”

Robert Pattinson and John David Washington in “Tenet.”

Melinda Sue Gordon, Warner Bros. Entertainment

SALT LAKE CITY — John Fithian, president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), doesn’t think a shutdown of the movie industry is sustainable — even for another six months. In fact, he thinks the shutdown might destroy the industry.

Fithian — the leader of the largest organization of movie theater owners — told The Los Angeles Times in a recent interview that movie theaters can’t wait for a COVID-19 vaccine in early 2021 to reopen. Waiting too long could destroy the industry, he said.

“If the answer is, ‘We’re going to wait until 100% of theaters are open,’ we’re not going to be there until a year from now when there’s a vaccine,” Fithian said. “This is existential for the movie theater industry. If we go a year without new movies, it’s over.”

The movie theater industry has found itself in a bind. Many theaters are closed because of the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has led to spikes all across the country. Due to the spikes, movie studios have delayed film releases. This leaves movie theaters stuck in the middle — wanting to reopen to give the industry some life, but holding back due to lack of new movies and rise in coronavirus cases.

Most recently, Disney decided to delay “Mulan” and Warner Bros. has postponed “Tenet”again (the movie is now scheduled to release on Labor Day weekend in the U.S.). At the beginning of the year, both films were expected to be summer 2020 blockbusters. More recently they were considered to be the first films to bring people back to the movies.

“Twenty days ago, I would’ve said we’re on track,” David A. Gross, head of movie consultancy Franchise Entertainment Research, told The Los Angeles Times. “But this latest spike is just awful.”

Movie theaters have worked to make their reopenings safe. For example, AMC Theatersoriginally pitched the idea to reopen without a face mask requirement. However, the company later walked that idea back, deciding to require masks. Locally, Megaplex Theatres has reopened its doors despite the pandemic, showing classic films. Megaplex even topped the box office for the entire country a few weeks back, a sign that there’s still something of an appetite to see movies again.

There’s no question that movie theaters need movies to survive. That’s obvious. That’s literally their business. The industry took a direct hit right after the pandemic began. In fact, when the coronavirus reached the United States, there were questions about the long-term viability of some theaters. AMC Theatres came out immediately and said it was struggling to survive in the pandemic. Rumors of bankruptcy floated about. There were even some rumors that Amazon looked to buy out AMC, capitalizing on the company’s weakness. Since that time, AMC has slowly rebounded. But it’s no question that a Band-Aid can only top the bleeding for so long. But theaters are still holding for new releases.

Except those releases keep getting delayed. Studios remain cautious about releasing a film if people are worried about going to the theaters, especially since the coronavirus has increasingly been found to spread through poor ventilation. Sitting in a movie theater for about two hours raises the risk of getting coronavirus if someone there has it. That’s one of the reasons why “Tenet” hit a snag in China. The country’s guidelines prohibit films from running for more than two hours. The film is longer than that.

JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON and ROBERT PATTINSON and in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action epic “TENET,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON and ROBERT PATTINSON and in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action epic “TENET,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Melinda Sue Gordon, Warner Bros.

As theaters wait to reopen, there are alternatives that have proven successful with the decline of the indoor theater industry. Outdoor theaters are on the rise. For example, drive-in movie theaters have seen a rebound in viewership because of the pandemic. Drive-in theaters have hosted movies and concerts throughout the summer, making something old new again in the face of the pandemic. This might only expand as Walmart prepares to add theaters in their parking lots. Reports suggested “Tenet” might even see a release at drive-in theaters, too.

Other adaptive theater designs have come into the picture in recent days, too. Overseas, we’ve seen glimpses of a floating cinema, where people literally sit in floating, socially distanced boats to watch movies. Those are coming to the Unites States. And a separate company has already begun developing new movie theaters that resemble those from “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith,” in that they’re giant, socially distant booths that remains far enough apart that lessen risk of the virus’ spread.

And some indoor theaters — like the Megaplex — have resorted to playing older films to encourage people to return. Still, you can only wonder how much appetite there will be to see older movies in the theaters, even if proper precautions are taken. New movies often bring in the most viewers. And if there are no movies within the next six months — many studios rescheduled their 2020 films to 2021 — you have to wonder how long these theaters can last.

Additionally, what appetite will there be for movie theaters once there’s a vaccine? There’s certainly a world in which the vaccine doesn’t help everyone. About 30% of people said they probably wouldn’t get a COVID-19 vaccine, after all, according to The Washington Post.So does that mean that theaters will struggle to collect new viewers anyway?

“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,” Eric Schiffer, CEO of The Patriarch Organization, a private equity firm based in Los Angeles, told me earlier this year. “There’s gonna be a long tail to this.”

It’s unlikely we’ve seen the last of movie theaters. New movies will eventually be released and people will need to make the choice whether to attend a screening or not. And it helps that, in general, people enjoy the movie theater experience. In fact, a majority of peoplesaid they’d return to movie theaters if COVID-19 guidelines were place.

“Once theaters can open safely, there’s plenty of product,” Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony’s motion picture group, told The Los Angeles Times. “It’s not a chicken-and-egg situation, it’s a safety issue.”

But the movie theater industry remains in a standstill. It can’t move forward without new movies, but it can’t get new movies without progress with the vaccine and treatment.

It’s unclear when this current phase of the industry will change. But there’s plenty of content on the waiting table. Movie theaters will have plenty of films to show — if they can make it through the storm.

The return to normal will come. But movie theaters know there will always be an audience for them.

“The return to normal, whatever the new normal looks like, it’s going to obviously take some time,” Jeff Whipple, vice president of advertising, marketing and public relations for Megaplex Theaters, told me in March. “But we have full confidence that guests will be anxious to come back and experience great entertainment in great venues.”