Movie theaters are closing because of coronavirus, some worry they may never reopen

Regal Cinemas announced today that they are closing all theaters as of tomorrow:

In sign of what many are expecting is to come for all theaters in the U.S., Regal Cinemas is shutting down all their locations starting Tuesday, March 17 as a precaution amid the current circumstances. All theaters will remain closed until further notice. Regal is the second-biggest chain in the U.S. with 7,155 screens in 542 theaters in 42 states, and is the first big chain out of the top 3 to close.


Other chains have not followed suit thus far. Cinemark, the third largest chain in the U.S. (which operates the biggest movie theater in my town), has posted guidance which, as of today, takes a series of steps including reducing capacity of each theater by 50 percent and additional cleaning of hard surfaces within the theater. Similarly, AMC Theaters, which is the largest chain in the U.S., posted a statement from the CEO on its website Friday which reads in part:

To give you more empty space around you within our theatres, we are capping ticket availability to 50% of the normal seating capacity for every showtime in every auditorium at all AMC theatres nationwide. Once we hit 50% of an auditorium’s capacity, movie screenings will show as being Sold Out, even though by definition there will be a large number of unfilled seats. This will begin Saturday, March 14, and for now, will continue until April 30.

In some locatioins, such as New York and Los Angeles, theaters have been ordered closed by mayors, something which has never happened before:

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti have ordered movie theaters in their respective cities to close in response to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s the first time in modern history that cinemas have shuttered en masse not due to weather concerns.

With the writing on the wall for theaters, Universal is releasing films that are currently in theaters to streaming services weeks before they normally would do so:


The company will also make films that are currently in theaters available on-demand starting as early as Friday, March 20. These films include the horror movies “The Hunt” and “The Invisible Man,” as well as “Emma,” an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel from Focus, Universal’s specialty label.

The films will be available for a 48-hour rental period at a suggested retail price of $19.99 in the U.S. and for roughly the same price in international markets. The announcement is a blow to movie theaters, which have long resisted any attempts to shorten the amount of time that movies are available exclusively on the big screen.

One animated film, “Trolls World Tour”  which was set to be released in theaters next month will be released for rental online the same day. For the moment, major tent-pole films like the next installment in the Fast & Furious series and the next James Bond film have pushed back their release dates in hopes that they can be shown in theaters once the danger of the coronavirus is passed. But there’s some concern that the virus could be a death blow to theaters already struggling with declining attendance.

Looking at the last 20 years of attendance figures, the number of tickets sold in North America peaked in 2002, when cinemas sold about 1.6 billion. In 2019, attendance totaled roughly 1.2 billion, a 25 percent drop — even as the population of the United States increased roughly 15 percent. Cinemas have kept ticket revenue high by raising prices, but studio executives say there is limited room for continued escalation. Offerings in theaters may also grow more constrained. Even before the pandemic, major studios were starting to route smaller dramas and comedies toward streaming services instead of theaters.

And now comes the coronavirus, which has prompted people to bivouac in their homes, theaters to put in place social-distancing restrictions and studios to postpone most theatrical releases through the end of April. Rich Greenfield, a founder of the LightShed Partners media research firm, predicted that the disruption would speed the ascendance of streaming.

“The behavior was already shifting, but this hits the accelerator pedal,” Mr. Greenfield said. “I think most of the global exhibition business will be in bankruptcy by the end of the year.”

He added, “Now studios are going to think more and more about why they are relying on third parties to distribute their content.”


Movies are typically in theaters exclusively for the first 90 days, at which point they become available for streaming and home purchase. During the first week of release, the theater typically keeps about 50 percent of the box office and passes on the other 50 percent to the distributor. That percentage increases in the theater’s favor as the weeks pass until it is keeping as much as 60 percent of the box office. All of that adds up to billions of dollars. It’s not hard to imagine how a company like Disney would see a big advantage in being able to release films exclusively over its own streaming service and thereby cut out the expensive middleman.

My family subscribed to Disney+ the week it went online. I really enjoyed their exclusive Star Wars show, The Mandalorian, but I haven’t watched anything on the service since. Disney is probably aware it needs fresh content to keep subscribers around and releasing films online the same day as in the theater could give Disney+ a big boost.

Even without the coronavirus, a lot of people might prefer to watch a new film at home in their own living rooms, where popcorn is cheap, rather than go out. Frankly, I might choose that option occasionally. Taking my family of 5 to the theater usually costs around $45 for tickets (that’s a discount price) and at least $20 for popcorn and drinks. Paying $20 at home would save money and be more convenient. Plus you can pause if someone needs to get up and go to the bathroom.

But the truth is I love movie theaters and have since my parents were going to drive-ins with me in the back seat. I love the old movie palaces like Disney’s flagship El Capitan in Hollywood or the Chinese Theater right across the street. I like the big screen and the big sound of my local Cinemark theater here in Orange County. And I have a lot of clear memories of movie theaters as a child: Waiting for the lights to go down at Star Wars as I looked through the printed program. Waiting in line for a midnight show of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (which was way past my bedtime). Seeing John Carpenter’s The Thing in a theater whose AC was stuck so that it was about 68 degrees in the middle of summer. I just can’t imagine a world without movie theaters. But for now the best thing is for them to close. In a few weeks or months when they reopen, I hope everyone will go back to the theaters.


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