Rethinking the Cinema: Will Theatergoers Have a Bijou to Return to After the Pandemic?

By Jonathan Spira on 21 October 2020
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As theaters slowly begin to reopen in the United States (theaters in much of New York State got the green light to reopen with limited capacity on Saturday), a larger question looms: will moviegoers return to the Bijou?

The film “Tenet” – the first Hollywood tent-pole to open in theaters as pandemic shutdowns in some areas were being lifted – was intended to kick off a motion-picture revival. Instead, it alone may serve as a textbook example of why it’s a bad idea to open a blockbuster movie during a global crisis such as the coronavirus outbreak.

Meanwhile, other films that were slated to open in 2020 such as “No Time to Die” and “Dune” are looking to 2021 for their debuts while Cineworld, parent of Regal and the world’s second largest theater chain, announced it would suspend U.S. and U.K. operations for the time being.

AMC Theatres, the largest movie theater chain in the world, said earlier this month that its existing cash resources would be “largely depleted” by the end of 2020 or early 2021 due to the “reduced movie slate” for the fourth quarter as well as “the absence of significant increases in attendance from current levels.”

A key difference between the experience of going to the theater for a musical or play or going to the cinema (which some call a picture house) for a movie is that the latter can reasonably successfully be replicated at home.

When you watch a movie at home, you do miss out unique aspects of the cinema experience, including floor-to-ceiling images and eardrum shattering surround sound, but you can also skip the over-priced popcorn and other famed movie snacks. You don’t get to experience the movie with strangers (a plus during a pandemic) but you also don’t get to hear their reactions.  Until the start of the pandemic, you didn’t get to see a movie at home when it first came out, but more movies are being released via streaming services now that moviegoers are staying put.

On the other hand, when you watch movie at home, you get to choose the (presumably more healthy) snacks you want, you can choose the starting time of the movie, you don’t have to look for parking, and you won’t have obnoxious strangers talking during the film when they should be keeping their mouths’ shut.

You can also skip the 20 minutes of movie previews that theaters project at the start time for the movie you paid to actually see, and you don’t have to worry if the theater has the latest HEPA air filters and whether it screened the usher that took your ticket for the virus.

Watching a movie at home also eliminates the constant concern theatergoers might have that the person several seats over who has removed his mask in order to consume his popcorn and soft drink might be infectious.  Many people truly do believe that going to see a movie in a picture house is putting their lives at risk for the sake of a few hours of entertainment, although AMC recently announced that its theaters could be rented out for as little as $99 for an audience of 20 during the pandemic.

As things stand, the movie theaters in New York City and other major cities remain shuttered.  Studios can’t hit their target numbers without the Big Apple, both because of the significant box-office revenue and the number of amateur and professional movie critics who, in pre-pandemic days, went to the movies and talked about what they saw.

If we have to say good-bye to movie theaters for the remainder of the pandemic, however long that might be, it remains clear that we may be saying good-bye to movie theaters, period.

It’s too soon, however, to simply give up the ghost and say Netflix, Disney+, Apple, and Amazon Prime Videowin.  Movie studios, however, need to rethink the types of films they offer and look back carefully at what they peddle.

In 2013, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, speaking on a panel at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, predicted that theatrical motion pictures would become a niche market.  Spielberg predicted the industry would face a meltdown, although not a pandemic-induced one.

Lucas said that, after the meltdown, “You’re going to end up with fewer theaters, bigger theaters with a lot of nice things. Going to the movies will cost 50 bucks or 100 or 150 bucks, like what Broadway costs today.”

“A movie will sit in the theaters for a year, like a Broadway show does,” he added. “That will be called the movie business.”

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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