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Mid-Quarantine Cinema

by Alex Kirschenbaum Sep 14, 2020

Four months ago, we assessed the possible futures of post-quarantine cinema. Premium Video On Demand (PVOD) was on the upswing, after apparently netting Trolls: World Tour a lucrative opening weekend in rental grosses when the studio behind it, Universal, opted to release the animated sequel on streaming services for an elevated rate.

Since then, everything from Disney’s Mulan remake to Bill & Ted Face The Music has employed this release strategy in the U.S., albeit with slightly varying price points (Mulan is going for $29.99 on Disney+).

Also since then, the novel coronavirus has continued to spread across the country. Though overall new case numbers are in decline, cases are up in 11 states as much of the nation remains in some form of lockdown, and many non-essential businesses remain shuttered.

In the last month, however, in a bold move, indoor movie theaters across 70% of the country have reopened, and several new films have been released in an effort to gauge audiences’ willingness to return inside. Audiences have appeared relatively unmoved. In a recent Morning Consult poll, only 18% of US adults said they would be comfortable going to the movies at all during the pandemic.

So what does the future hold for the fate of film viewing? Let’s discuss what things are looking like mid-quarantine.

The Wait Continues

In speaking with actress Jennifer Garner during an Instagram Live conversation (because he has apparently been more or less squeezed out of COVID-19 White House pressers), Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the U.S., speculated that we would be unable to sit inside indoor movie theaters safely for at least a year after an effective vaccine has been manufactured.

“I think it’s going to be a combination of a vaccine that has been around for almost a year and good public-health measures,” Fauci noted, adding that he does not anticipate a vaccine will be ready until at least the end of this year. So we’re looking at late 2021 for the next opportunity we’ll have to safely park ourselves in our local multiplexes — if they last that long.

About that… indoor movie theaters, facing the threat of bankruptcy, have reopened in the various cities and states that condone it, albeit with certain levels of coronavirus protections in place. 44 states currently have reopened their indoor movie theaters, though the restrictions for conduct vary from state to state. Four of the largest theater chains in the nation — AMC, Regal, Alamo Drafthouse, and Cinemark — have coordinated a set of rough reopening rules, known as CinemaSafe, though they allow enough room for interpretation across various state and city rulings.

When indoor theatrical re-openings began in earnest last month, Patrick Gomez of the AV Club spoke with several expert epidemiologists to confirm what most of us already knew: indoor movie theater attendance is a dangerous luxury we can’t currently afford. UCLA epidemiologist Dr. Anne W. Rimoin asserts that, “Short of renting out an entire theater, which is obviously not an option for most of us, there is no scenario in which going to a movie theater is a good idea.”

Former city city health commissioner Dr. Abdul El-Sayed broke down just why theatrical moviegoing remains so risky in conversation with Gomez. “From what we understand, the virus is transmitted through through aerosolized droplets that come out of our mouths, oftentimes when we talk or when we laugh or when we sing,” Dr. El-Sayed said. “And so, being in a room for two hours with a bunch of folks who are laughing at a movie, and where air is not being circulated in an efficient way, and where you don’t know who has been in there before you, that’s really hazardous exposure.”

Brian Krans of Healthline consulted a whole other sample of experts to confirm this, and the recommendations were similarly severe. University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health hospital physician Dr. Vinisha Amin notes, “Going to the movie theater is still medically considered a high-risk activity which can predispose greater numbers of individuals to acquire the virus.” Amin instead posits, “Having a cozy movie night with the immediate family within the comfort of one’s own home remains a great option.”

Private screenings, where one party rents out an entire indoor theater screen for a movie viewing, are now on the table. Those of course remain somewhat cost-prohibitive for many prospective viewers.

The Popularity Of Premium Video On Demand

At-home streaming for new movies remains quite popular as a safe temporary alternative. Based on a study conducted by our friends in JustWatch from August 5th-10th, approximately 89% of polled U.S.-based JustWatch consumers are open to the prospect of a PVOD alternative to a formerly-theatrical release. Almost half of those polled are open to paying as much as $19.99 for the privilege. This tracks, since even the $19.99 price tag is a number that, all things considered, remains significantly cheaper than in-person theater attendance for group audiences watching together like couples and families.

The graph goes on to indicate an intriguing side effect of the easy access provided by PVOD streaming options: 24% of people who do not view a single movie theatrically all year are open to the higher-priced PVOD rental model.

(Image Courtesy Of Iona Herrera, JustWatch)

Theatrical Reopenings

After the Russell Crowe thriller Unhinged kicked things off with a modest $4 million theatrical take the weekend of August 21st-23rd, other flicks braved the indoor theater reopening route. Disney’s long-delayed New Mutants grossed $7 million the next weekend, while 38% of theaters remained closed.

But things really started getting interesting when a movie that people actually wanted to see, Christopher Nolan’s $200 million sci-fi action epic Tenet, opened on September 3rd. The film grossed $9.4 million over Labor Day Weekend stateside, though it made a significantly larger impact internationally, in territories where the coronavirus is more under control. Its studio, Warner Brothers, initially included grosses from preview showings from as far back as August 31st (i.e. three days before the weekend in question started) when first reporting the four-day holiday weekend take to be a more robust $20.2 million.

The film has earned $207 million worldwide to date. It declined reasonably in its second domestic weekend even as new territories reopened, dropping 29% to a $6.7 million take while missing out on major, still-closed markets like New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles, as only an estimated 70% of the nation’s indoor theaters have now reopened. Again, per the aforementioned epidemiologist interviews, even with a world of precautions, indoor moviegoing (if you haven’t rented out the entire theater to your household) remains a dangerous decision, though clearly there is still interest in the experience from the public.

In a misguided effort to punish dense cities striving to be cautious amidst the pandemic, Warner Brothers had an embargo over drive-in theatrical availability in any market where indoor theaters remained shuttered. Happily, however, the studio reversed course, and Tenet finally arrived in LA-area drive-in theaters this past weekend, so this viewer and his trusty Honda Civic will get to check it out on a big screen after all. Indiewire projects the film to gross $300 million worldwide during the pandemic, probably a third of what it would take in during a non-pandemic window. Interest in other movies this past weekend was lackluster, as theatrical films will have grossed under $15 million when all the receipts are tallied, a number that roughly averages out to $5,000 per theater, which is not enough to cover film rental expenses, staff and maintenance expenses, and landlord payments.

The shared experience of watching a movie with hundreds of other rabid appreciators in the dark is special, and one that I miss dearly. Going to a packed house and cowering in fear as a werewolf attacks or laughing in collective delight as bridesmaids bicker was one of the great experiential bonding avenues still available to our culture as recently as February of this year. Some (most?) of my best memories stem from theatrical moviegoing experiences. There is nothing quite like seeing a film in a crowded theater, and I am excited for the day that we can do that again. But it is not worth dying for.

An Update On The Paramount Decrees

Naturally, there is a fallout from movie theater attendance falling off so dramatically: without a big bailout, movie theaters as we know them are in trouble. As we mentioned in the prior article projecting the possible post-pandemic future of filmgoing, the fate of the current ruling movie theater class has been severely jeopardized by these long-term, pandemic-induced closures.

Since then, a brave new world where theaters are owned by movie studios and streaming giants has inched closer to becoming a reality. Last month, U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres okayed the end of the Paramount Consent Decrees, an antitrust ruling in 1948 that forbade studios from owning movie theater chains. The DGA and the National Association of Theater Owners balked at this new ruling.

There is a glass-half-full way to view this new reality, however, as proposed by Richard Janes this spring: with studios and big-ticket streamers curating the look and feel of movie theaters in the years to come, is it possible that a Netflix-owned theater can start to use its brand familiarity with consumers to showcase the kinds of esoterically-minded movies (and maybe even binge-able TV shows) on state-of-the-art big screens that recently had to move away from theaters and exclusively onto streaming platforms?

Though this could certainly spell trouble for the extant big movie theater chains, can independently-owned arthouse and revival theater houses remain in operation despite a coming onslaught of studio-owned theaters? Yes. It’s up to us to continue to support virtual screenings of unique content for these types of exhibitors during the pandemic.

Having spent most of my formative theatergoing years in Chicago, I’d like to recommend the fare of the Music Box Theatre, the Gene Siskel Film Center, and Facets Multimedia as being well worth your virtual time. For LA film fans, the Laemmle and the American Cinematheque have a lot of cool virtual cinema choices as of this writing.

To sum up: stay safe, watch Tenet at your local drive-in, pay $19.99 for your PVOD stream of Bill & Ted, and then go rent a virtual screening of some delightfully obscure arthouse or international fare from your favorite local movie theater. I know I will.