Opinion: When movie theaters reopen, what happens?

By Kyler Guebert, Staff Writer

When I saw “The Hunt” at the Carbondale AMC on March 12, I didn’t think it would be my last time seeing a movie in theaters for a long time. COVID-19 had been in the headlines for a few weeks at the time, but it had yet to hit the U.S. significantly.

My auditorium for the film was about half full, and everyone seemed to have distanced themselves from others, already showing me some sign of how moviegoing would be, assuming it would still be around at the time. That weekend, the domestic box office turned in one of the worst weekend performances ever recorded.

Since that day almost two months ago, I’ve been thinking. A lot. With headlines swirling and nowhere to escape it all, I felt incredibly overwhelmed. Each day brought a fear inside me of seeing worse news somewhere, and I just wanted to escape it all. 

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Many people talk about wanting things to go back to normal after this, but there is no going back to that normal. Every aspect of the world has been affected by this, and the repercussions will spread across every industry and aspect of our lives for years after this. 

One of these repercussions that has been in the headlines recently was the fate of movie theaters post-COVID. Almost every theater across the country was closed, with drive-ins bringing in the very minimal profits for the industry right now. 

In Illinois, drive-ins were recently only just allowed to re-open, with some choosing to show recent releases like “Trolls: World Tour” and “The Invisible Man,” while others are opting to screen more classic fare, like “The Goonies” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

I myself am very excited to take a trip to the drive-in soon, as my moviegoing habits have been severely disrupted by COVID and my only other trip to the drive-in was to see 2016’s “Suicide Squad.” 

With no profits, most theater chains are preparing to or have already filed for bankruptcy. They have already released and implemented social distancing plans for when moviegoing is allowed to return to normal.

But, most studios have nothing new to release for a while, with major studio tentpole films like “Mulan,” “Black Widow,” “A Quiet Place Part II,” and “Wonder Woman 1984” all pushed back to new dates that they may or may not make, depending on how reopening plans and COVID developments go.

So all of this (and so much more I still have yet to mention) brings me to a question I have been asking myself for weeks now: What happens when theaters reopen? What’s the smartest move to make to bring moviegoers back safely? And, when they do reopen, will people go? Or has staying home and having instant access to content destroyed the desire and urgency to see a movie in theaters? 

In order to try and understand this from the perspective of a more traditional moviegoer, I sat down with graduating SIU senior Madeline Parker.

On average, Parker says she normally heads to the theater anywhere from 3-7 times per year. I am an incredibly avid moviegoer, and going to the theater is often a weekly occurrence for me. In 2019, I went to the movies roughly 50 times. In 2018, the number was roughly 80.

According to statistics, the average person goes to the theater roughly 4 times per year, meaning my moviegoing habits are incredibly unusual. However, theater rewards programs and subscription services make it easier on the wallet to enjoy one of my favorite experiences.

In 2020, Parker has only gone to the theaters once so far. I, on the other hand, had already been 10 times. One of the biggest things keeping Parker from the cinema: cost: 

“Movies are expensive, so if I am going to the theater, it’s got to be something I really, really, really want to see,” Parker said.

This seems to be a common theme among my friends and peers when it comes to moviegoing, as money is tight for us as is, and paying $11 for a movie ticket isn’t something many can do on a frequent basis. Plus, the costly temptation of concession snacks can make the price for a trip to the movies rack up quickly. 

The reason for this pricing is simple: theater revenue. A large chunk of ticket sales for theaters (anywhere from 40% to 60%) goes to the studio, so most theaters make the majority of their money through concession sales. 

What’s even more expensive is going to the movies as a family. Tickets alone could range anywhere from $28 to $50 for an entire family, and the addition of snacks can make one family of four’s total trip cost upwards of $100. 

This is something that benefits movies like “Trolls: World Tour,” a film where most people seeing the film would be there with their whole family. So, naturally, a worldwide pandemic causing almost every major release surrounding the newest Trolls film to vacate the premises presented a golden opportunity for Universal. 

With theaters showing recent Universal films closing across the globe, the studio decided to take a leap that had only been discussed previously and release their newest films straight to consumers to rent. Current theatrical Universal releases “The Invisible Man,”EMMA.” and “The Hunt” were released to rent digitally for 48 hours for $19.99. The reaction to their online release was minimal, and only “The Invisible Man” was able to make some kind of dent in the digital market. 

However, Universal decided to do something else huge: premiere a film at home digitally. “Trolls: World Tour” would be the first major studio release to use the digital at-home premiere strategy in this way. 

The film would follow the same rental method as the other Universal releases. Many were looking to this to be a potential business model and brand new consumer opportunity, and many were hoping for its failure, as its success poses a huge threat to movie theaters. 

In its first three weeks, “Trolls: World Tour” had made roughly $100 million from at-home digital rentals. The first film made around $150 million domestically during its theatrical run, meaning “Trolls: World Tour” is looking to match or even surpass the success of its predecessor. 

Financially, Universal is breaking even, especially now that they don’t have to split a large chunk of profits with theaters. Universal’s CEO recently announced that they are so satisfied with the success of “Trolls: World Tour” that the company plans on continuing this model with films even when theaters reopen.

This set AMC Theaters off. Within hours of this declaration from Universal, AMC Theaters announced that they will no longer play Universal films in their theaters effective immediately. 

This means, if this sticks, films like “The Forever Purge,” “Candyman,” “Jurassic World: Dominion” and “Minions: The Rise of Gru” would not play in the majority of theaters in the US or worldwide. Regal Theaters followed suit. Currently, AMC Theaters is looking into bankruptcy to save their business, and all AMC employees have been furloughed. 

For Parker, the idea of the digital at-home premiere is promising. 

“It’s a lot to ask the average moviegoer to go out to a theater and spend an ungodly amount on snacks and tickets to see a movie, especially now,” Parker said. 

She believes that, if studios are able to cut deals with theaters to continue to offer digital at-home premieres, but through a theater’s online service, everyone could win.

“I think theaters need to start not getting mad and start trying to make a new system beneficial for them and studios,” Parker said.

As an avid moviegoer, this kind of adoption is an absolute nightmare to me. I love seeing films on the big screen, whether they are a huge blockbuster, an indie awards-favorite, a low-budget horror film, or anything in between. 

I mean, I saw “Cats.” I’ll see just about anything. So the idea that I won’t even have the option to see certain films in theaters absolutely enrages me. 

I understand the necessity for this business model at this time, and, for certain films, this model could work incredibly well. But the power that this model could have on movie theaters and the loss of business for average moviegoers would destroy the box office. Summer movie season would look like January and theaters across the globe would quickly close down. theaters would become a rarity.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily what will happen. Universal is one of the only studios to have tested the at-home premiere model, and major releases have all been pushed back to dates that will hopefully allow them to premiere in theaters as intended. And, based on current trends, theaters could expect to reopen as early as next month. 

The first major studio films to open in theaters would be “The Forever Purge” (July 10), Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” (July 17),  “Mulan” (July 24), “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” (August 7) and “Wonder Woman 1984” (August 14). Depending on when theaters do reopen, one of those films could benefit from being the first major film to open post-COVID.

If AMC’s plans hold, “The Forever Purge” could see a very low box office performance, but “The Purge” TV show has been received well, so perhaps the franchise could perform well at home. Personally, I’d love to see what is being touted as the final film in The Purge franchise in theaters, but it would be difficult considering the dominance of AMC Theaters surrounding me.

Those July and August films also represent the first major test for how quickly audiences are willing to return to theaters. A lot of that decision will depend on what kinds of health and safety restrictions are put into place. AMC has already announced the consistent sanitizing and cleaning of common areas, 50% auditorium capacity, social distancing seating (you can still sit next to those you come with), and full cleans of auditoriums after screenings. 

Many theaters are also expected to enforce mask restrictions. This is something that doesn’t seem to appeal to Parker. 

“I go to the movies to escape reality, and wearing a mask during a movie would be a constant reminder of the fear of our reality and the fear of being in public. I probably just wouldn’t go, to be honest,” Parker said. 

Even with those types of precautions, many people, like Parker, will likely still not feel safe enough to return to theaters right away, meaning trips to the theater would become less common, with many only coming out for big blockbusters. 

This could have a huge and dangerous impact on indie films, as they could become less likely to get screens if theaters choose to show more popular films in more auditoriums to maximize profits. In turn, this could help smaller theaters get more business. 

If one screen theaters are able to feel safer to people than ones with 8, 12 or even 24 auditoriums, they could help propel those businesses, especially since many depend on donations and local business to stay afloat. 

But, with the lack of major studio releases, what can theaters even screen? Certainly, people won’t go back to the theater to see films released pre-shutdown that have been available to them for months now. 

Many theaters have toyed with the idea of re-releasing some popular films into theaters again before the new releases begin to come out in hopes they can optimize profits and prepare for big releases. In China, they planned on screening the four “Avengers” films, as well as “Inception” and “Avatar.” 

For Parker, this idea is hit and miss. 

“It really depends on the movie,” Parker said. “I’d love to have the chance to see certain films in a way I haven’t been able to experience them before.” 

When it comes to what types of movies she would like to see, Parker said she doesn’t want to see recent blockbusters. 

“I wanna see stuff where it really makes a difference to see it on the big screen,” Parker said.

 Ideally, Parker’s choice of film would either be horror film “A Quiet Place” or the classic animated “Cinderella.”

One thing Parker did say would increase her likelihood of returning to the movies: “Lower your prices a little bit. I don’t want to have to take out a loan for popcorn.” 

And it seems like there’s a real opportunity here for theaters. Showing films that people haven’t gotten the chance to see on the big screen, and potentially doing it for a cheaper price. 

AMC already operates Tuesdays as $6 days. Why not release films that could bring in an audience, see the changes that have been made for safety, try the new experience, and go from there? I know there are numerous films I would love the chance to see in theaters for the first time. 

For all of the negatives and potential pitfalls facing the industry, there are still plenty of potential positive developments that could happen. Perhaps there will be more of an appreciation for going to the theater post-COVID. 

I think if there’s any good that could come out of all of this, it’s getting to see people fall in love with seeing movies again and getting to see people experience something they love again. 

So, what does happen from here? There really is no one right answer, but there are a lot of factors at play right now that have the potential to change the landscape of how we consume film in the upcoming years. 

The industry is scrambling to keep up and try to stay above water, and as much as I support AMC and Regal’s decision to stand up to Universal, I can’t help but think that this standoff won’t last long. 

It seems like, with financial conditions how they are, those theaters will need that revenue, especially during the bust summer movie season. If Universal agreed either to a shorter window between theatrical release and digital release or to only release certain films with the at home premiere model, everyone would win.

I also just want to briefly say that I think it’s absolutely insane that the film that could potentially be changing Hollywood forever is “Trolls: World Tour.” It’s a cute movie, but I just can’t believe that sparkly animated trolls singing pop songs for ninety minutes could have the potential to destroy movie theaters and moviegoing.

Personally, when theaters do reopen, I’ll be back. Whatever safety measures I would have to take, I would gladly adhere to. 

Going to the movie theater is something I love not only because of my love for film, but also for the experience of getting to see something on a big screen with loud sound with other people who are all there to appreciate the same experience I am. 

I agree with Parker that the experience may not be the same and allow me to fully escape reality, but it’s something. And, especially after everything that has happened, I will absolutely be ready for an escape, even if the experience isn’t what it used to be.

Staff writer Kyler Guebert can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @kguebert88.

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