The movies have always been there for Americans during tough times, but the way they are here for us now may be changing as the possibility of forced theater closings looms.
Famously, movie attendance peaked during the Great Depression and has declined since another spike in 1942, at the height of World War II, with television and other media exerting influence on how we consume entertainment in the intervening years. The most recent technology game-changer, services such as Hulu and Netflix, may be the beneficiary of COVID-19 fears, with a recent survey indicating that as many as 29% of consumers have signed up for a new streaming service this year.
Netflix cannot duplicate the communal experience of moviegoing, however, with theaters in the U.S. still selling an average of 25 million tickets each week. But how long will that last, with Americans divided about whether to shutter movie theaters as a result of the outbreak?
On Sunday, movie theaters in New York City and Los Angeles were closed, the first time such an action has been taken for reasons other than the weather. Theaters in Italy, France and China also closed within days of taking the step of trying to increase social distancing by selling fewer seats.
For now, theaters remain open here — a decision that seems to be supported by Americans.
According to a survey conducted last week by Morning Consult and the Hollywood Reporter, about 38% of Americans think movie theaters should be closed temporarily, while 44% oppose a closing. That survey, however, was taken March 5-7. A lot has changed since then and a dramatic drop in last weekend’s box office, which hit a two-decade low, may indicate that Americans are avoiding the movies.
Many upcoming movie openings have been postponed, including “Mulan,” “A Quiet Place Part II” and the latest James Bond film, “No Time to Die,” but Universal Pictures is still testing the waters with “The Hunt,” a thriller satire with a political bent.
Theater chains across the country have announced measures to make patrons feel more comfortable as they gather together for viewing. Virtually all chains have said they’re increasing cleaning and disinfecting, installing hand sanitizers and instructing employees who don’t feel well to stay home. They’re also changing the ways they interact with customers on, for instance, the passing-out of condiments and refills.
Some chains are following the lead of France (and, before the complete closure, Italy) in blocking off some seats in order to maintain distance between patrons. French theaters are selling every other row, and St. Louis’ ShowPlace Icon has announced that it has removed “specific seats” in each of its auditoriums from sale. AMC, which operates theaters in Eden Prairie, Edina and Roseville, among other locations, is reducing capacity by 50% and not allowing more than 250 people in auditoriums of any size, which also follows Minnesota’s new guidelines for public gatherings.
Social distancing is also taking pace at Emagine Theatres, which operates venues in Lakeville, White Bear Township and Plymouth, among other locations. It is capping seating in its auditoriums at 100 and also only selling half of its seats. Alamo Drafthouse has announced that it’s blocking off seats “in some cities,” but, as of Friday afternoon, those cities did not include the Woodbury location, although the Alamo website was advising patrons everywhere to put seats between their parties and others’.
In a sign of how quickly all of this is changing, Alamo had updated its COVID-19 policies three times in three days last week.
As long as they are open, which movies are the theaters going to show? When highly anticipated releases are postponed, consumers wonder.
Theaters are dependent on releases from studios and, so far, neither party in that equation has commented on the immediate future of movie exhibition. Alamo may be in a better position than some chains because it regularly includes programming such as film series and revivals, making it less reliant on new releases.
But if you’re a movie fan who’s looking for a silver lining in all of this, it may be that the film you meant to get around to seeing a couple of weeks ago is likely to stick around longer because, for now, there aren’t many new movies to replace it.