Which leaves us with two open questions: First, how long will it take to get enough people vaccinated that we can once again blithely sit down in the dark with a bunch of strangers who are probably pulling down their masks to munch popcorn? In the United States, at least, the numbers keep getting more discouraging. Fewer than 40 percent of Americans say they’ll get a vaccine when it’s available, a decline that seems to be driven by partisan fear as much as medical uncertainty.
The longer it takes, the more urgent becomes the second question: Will theaters still be around when viewers are ready to go back? Theater chains are already facing a debt crisis that will become dire if they have to go another year without any significant revenue, as are the shopping malls where many of those theaters are housed. The modern movie business has been tuned to operate at vast scale, opening mega-budget blockbusters on thousands of screens at once. It’s unclear what happens if a significant portion of that capacity simply vanishes in the course of a year or two.
Yet even these financial problems are probably secondary to the behavioral one: If it takes 18 months, or even longer, for enough Americans to get vaccinated, could Americans simply lose the habit of going to the movies, learning to get their video entertainment from streaming series and their socializing from the backyard?