2020 hasn't been a great year for all of us. And for the film industry, it's an understatement to say it's been, well, rough. As the novel coronavirus swept across the globe, studio productions shut down, release dates shifted, and theaters went dark. The box office took a nosedive that's never been seen since tracking began, and this summer became the first since the release of "Jaws" in 1975 where the public went a whole season with nary a big popcorn escape or thrill.
It's no hyperbole to say that the industry is hurting in a historic way, and this could not be felt more than in the theatrical exhibition business. While theaters in various parts of the country have been able to open, the two largest markets -- New York and L.A. -- remain closed. This, coupled with the skittish reception for Warner Bros.' "Tenet" has forced other studios to move their major releases to later in the winter, when (crossing-fingers) things might be a little more under control.
Now's a good time to remind everyone to get their flu shot.
For theater owners, the year originally held much promise. In January, Sony's "Bad Boys for Life" was dominating screens, while by February Paramount's "Sonic the Hedgehog" and Universal's "The Invisible Man" continued to prove that certain old I.P., if done right, can succeed. All eyes were looking in anticipation to a blockbuster-filled summer that was to kick off with Marvel's "Black Widow" and Universal's "F9." That never happened.
At the outset of the lockdowns and theater closures in March, it was predicted that the pandemic would cost the box office as much as $5 billion in lost revenue. At present, the box office is roughly 80% less than it was at a similar time last year, with the global box office looking more promising. However, with no government help (yet) and no Hollywood product for the foreseeable future – especially with the delay of "No Time to Die" to Easter 2021– theater-going as we know it could be forever altered.
Godspeed, James Bond!
With that in mind, dozens of prominent filmmakers on Tuesday joined representatives from the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and the Motion Picture Association (MPA) to urge Congress to take action. In a letter addressed to House and Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle, they outlined a bleak future, as the pandemic continues to cause detrimental financial harm to cinemas. "Our country cannot afford to lose the social, economic, and cultural value that theaters provide," the letter implores. In a separate statement, NATO president/CEO John Fithian explained that by the end of the year, many theater companies might face bankruptcy or permanent closure.
Among the signers of the letter to Congress was "Tenet" director Christopher Nolan, who wrote about this very thing in an impassioned op-ed at the start of the pandemic shutdowns. Say what you will about the decision to release his epic mind-bending tentpole while a majority of the country couldn't watch it, you have to give credit to Nolan and Warner Bros. for doing anything they could for struggling theaters when there was some kind of window open.
John David Washington looked into the future, and saw the future was wearing face masks.
Even though "Tenet" didn't become exactly the box office savior that Hollywood was hoping for, it shouldn't be reported as a financial bomb in the same vein as, say, "Solo: A Star Wars Story" or "Waterworld." "Tenet" may not have reached the same domestic financial heights as 2010's "Inception," but it's not due to a lack of interest or because it was a critical turkey. It's just that we're simply in uncharted waters, and a lot of the moviegoing public may be still nervous about being stuck indoors for two hours, sitting among strangers who may or may not be removing their masks to munch on popcorn.
That's right – we're looking at you, anthropomorphic popcorn guy!
The time may not be right yet, but the desire to go back to the cinema is there. In a recent poll of avid movie fans, our parent company National CineMedia found that 94% of survey respondents who live in areas where theaters have yet to open miss the theater-going experience, and 96% look forward to returning to the cinema once the virus is under control. And, when that day comes, hopefully Warner Bros will give "Tenet" a proper re-release, and a marketing boost once theaters in L.A. and New York reopen.
So, with theaters struggling to fill seats at 25% capacity, what's left for them to do as they await financial help from the government? On top of offering discounted tickets and concessions, many chains are now looking to rent out their theaters. For a nominal fee (which varies depending on the chain you choose), you and your close bubble of family and friends can rent out an auditorium, with the ability to watch from a selection of nostalgic gems like "Jurassic Park" or the recently released "The New Mutants" and "Tenet."
Moviegoers who may be otherwise wary of the theatrical experience amid the pandemic have been largely intrigued by this concept (after all, you're only surrounded by the people you include, and at a proper social distance). Theater operators like Tim League, founder of the Alamo Drafthouse, are already seeing success in the strategy, telling CNN, "[private screening rentals] is a significant part of our top-line revenue at this point."
It's true that the big screen theatrical experience cannot be replicated. In spite of all of the technological advancements made in the living room, nothing comes close to seeing a movie on the silver screen. After all, in the cinema — versus your couch — it's just you and the movie. In front of a massive screen with massive sound, it's you and your community, free from all living room distractions like, say, your cat doing things that cats do.
But why stop with movies? If groups like Fathom Events have taught us anything, it's that the magic of cinema can truly elevate the experience you get from other forms of entertainment, whether it's the opera, live music, or even sporting events.
For example...the NFL is now in full swing, and let's be real here — going to a bar with your friends to watch the big game probably isn't exactly the greatest or safest of all experiences right now. But, if you can rent out an auditorium to watch "Necessary Roughness," why not hope for the NFL to partner with national theater chains to help bring their big games to the big screen? Especially since folks can't go en masse to the actual stadiums right now anyways. It could ultimately turn into a big P.R. win for theater owners and the league, who would be seen as a savior for cinemas -- allowing folks to reserve theaters and congregate in small numbers at a social distance while watching the event on a huge screen to approximate what they're missing by not being there live.
It might be debatable, but when you compare the safety of sitting face-front in a movie theater versus sitting face-to-face at a loud sports bar, the movie theater wins. The theater already has all the social distancing in place while still offering a far larger screen and even food, drink, and alcohol (depending on the chain).
Other sports leagues could hop on this too, especially as MLB heads into its playoff season soon. There are more opportunities beyond movies (sports, music, live theater, etc.) as Fathom Events can attest. Right now is a prime time. And unlike studio movies that take a calculated risk by opening, sports events are happening regardless. Why not have the big pop culture industries help each other in such unprecedented times?
Lots of challenges exist, including current contracts, advertisement policy, etc. But using the space for limited community reservations (e.g. families, friends) where safeguards like mask-wearing, social distancing and air filtration are all in place, for all types of screenings, makes sense right now, to ensure that theaters continue to survive, and thrive.