Movie theaters are starting to reopen. Will anyone go?

Aug 20, 2020, 5:54 AM
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 31: People wear protective face masks outside the AMC 34th Street 14 movi...
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 31: People wear protective face masks outside the AMC 34th Street 14 movie theater as the city continues Phase 4 of re-opening following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on July 31, 2020 in New York City. The fourth phase allows outdoor arts and entertainment, sporting events without fans and media production. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)
(Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

    (CNN) — For the first time in roughly five months, AMC Theatres will pop the popcorn, dim the lights, and start the show.

But will anyone buy a ticket?

AMC, the world’s largest movie theater chain, is reopening more than 100 US locations on Thursday after closing their doors in March. Other major chains like Regal Cinemas and Alamo Drafthouse will also return this weekend, while Cinemark started its phased reopening last weekend. Roughly 1,400 of the 6,000 venues in North America are currently open, according to Comscore. (Track how box-office sales have been hit on our recovery dashboard.)

It’s a monumental moment for theaters and the film industry at large. The next few weeks and months will give Hollywood an idea of whether the movie theater industry can bounce back after being ravaged by coronavirus.

It’s not going to be easy.

Few fresh blockbusters

For starters, theaters like AMC won’t have many big films to show for a couple of weeks. Christopher Nolan’s thriller “Tenet” doesn’t hit theaters in the United States until September 3, and Disney’s “Mulan” is not on AMC’s release slate. It hits Disney+ on September 4.

Other films like “Unhinged” and “The New Mutants” are opening sooner, but aren’t exactly well-known titles moviegoers are itching to see.

Until then, theaters are offering old movies like “Inception” and “Black Panther” to get people in the door.

Is it safe?

Getting people back to the movies during a pandemic is more than just having films that people want to see. Theater chains have to win over consumers who have gotten used to watching movies at home and who aren’t sure about the safety of sitting indoors with strangers for hours at a time.

Theaters have to convey a sense of safety and cleanliness.

AMC is requiring all guests to wear masks under its “Safe & Clean” initiative. It’s also capping theater capacity and upgrading ventilation systems. It’s yet to be seen whether those protocols will give moviegoers a strong sense of security.

Paul Degarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, told CNN Business that “it’s up to the theaters to ensure that they are so well prepared in creating the safest and most appealing environment possible.”

Degarabedian noted that “the sentiment of the moviegoers who go over the next few weeks needs to be positive.” That’s what will “give the theaters the best shot at drawing in, and more importantly, keeping patrons coming back,” he said.

Canadian theaters have already reopened and are showing some of the movies hitting the United States soon — such as “Unhinged” — but attendance has been tepid.

Competition is fierce and money is tight

The pandemic has put millions of people out of work, so disposable income is limited for many.

And consumers are at this point accustomed to staying home and watching Netflix, Disney+ and a slew of other streaming services for a monthly subscription cost that runs roughly the same as the average cost of a ticket.

“Wallets are tight right now, and most people have to do a cost-benefit analysis for nearly everything in their lives,” Dergarabedian said. “While movies have traditionally been a bargain compared to other outside the home activities, price matters.”

AMC made news last week when it announced it would sell tickets for just 15 cents on opening day. After that, the chain is offering tickets at a lower-than-usual price for older movie titles.

The big question: Is it worth it?

Coronavirus cases are still prevalent across the country, and moviegoing poses a risk because the virus often spreads more easily indoors.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Monday that gyms would reopen in the state later this month, but movie theaters would stay closed.

“I am sure there is a whole group of people who say, ‘I cannot live without going to the movies.’ But on a relative scale, a movie theater is less essential and poses a high risk,” Cuomo said. “Movie theaters are not that high on the list of essentials.”

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Movie theaters are starting to reopen. Will anyone go?