Will Movie Theaters Ever Return?

With some movie theaters starting to reopen while others close their doors forever and major movie releases getting pushed back month-after-month while on-demand movies make millions, only one thing is certain: post-pandemic Hollywood will never look the same.

On July 1, weeks into the slow reopening of movie theaters across the country, California Governor Gavin Newsom ordered theaters in 19 counties to close for at least three more weeks due to a spike in coronavirus cases. It was the right decision. No matter how much we miss those uncomfortable red seats and overpriced snacks, it’s not worth risking lives to see the newest flick and surely more states will follow in California’s footsteps. However, this brings cinema lovers back under the dark cloud of questions that have been hovering overhead since the country initially shut down.

Is this the final act for movie theaters? What effect would a lack of theaters have on the film industry?

This isn’t the first time questions about the future of cinemas have come up lately. While movie theaters are still a multi-billion dollar business, over the past few years the industry has started to struggle with one undeniable fact: A lot of people would rather pay less and watch a movie from home than pay more and watch it in theaters during the opening weeks. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that as ticket sales steadily decline, streaming continues to become more popular. While the nationwide lockdown isn’t the beginning of the problems for movie theater companies, it may be the end for many theaters.

Across the country, the shutdown has already proved too much to handle for many small, privately-owned theaters who have had to permanently close their doors due to the lack of business. Even AMC, the largest theater company in the U.S., announced in early June that they might not be able to continue operations after the pandemic, and at that point, they still expected to open their theaters in the beginning of July.

Even when theaters are allowed to reopen, there’s no guarantee that they will be a profitable option for film studios to show their movies in. Back in May, Variety reported that Christopher Nolan was eager to have his new film Tenet showing in theaters as soon as they open up. However, with a 200 million dollar budget and theaters only operating at 50% capacity, it would take an extremely long, successful release for the film to become profitable. The same can be said for other upcoming blockbusters like Mulan (budget of $200 million) and Wonder Woman 1984 (budget of $175 million). All three pushed back their release dates into August hoping that, by then, most theaters will be reopened. But even if they are, will Americans feel safe enough to start going to them?

On the other end of the spectrum, some studios have decided to send their films straight to digital platforms and have been majorly successful doing so. Trolls World Tour, which was supposed to open in theaters in April, was released for rental on digital platforms instead and made almost $100 million in the first three weeks, which is more than the first Trolls movie made in its entire five-month run in the theaters. Along with the trend of extremely popular streaming service movies like The Irishman, the unprecedented success of Trolls World Tour could cause more studios to remove theaters from their distribution equation altogether.

The thought that movie companies could stop releasing their movies into theaters is a dagger in the heart (especially if it’s partly caused by a movie called Trolls World Tour). I love theaters; I love laughing at a comedy with a hundred other people, I love the excitement of watching a movie on the night of its release, I love stuffing boxes of Milk Duds that I bought at the gas station into my pants on the way in, I even love that weird smell that’s like a mixture of popcorn, sweat and stale beer, and I don’t think I’m the only one.

They say you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I’m still optimistic that theaters can survive these hard times, because I don’t think I’m the only person who realized how much of a privilege it was to be able to go see a movie in theaters until that option was taken away. I’m reminded of all the amazing times I’ve had in the theater and craving the opportunity to go back. The numbers may say differently and the trends might all be toward streaming, but if movie theaters can last through a few more months of lockdown, the movie industry may be surprised to see droves of people coming out to save one of America’s favorite pastimes.