Theaters On The Brink

It’s not getting better anytime soon.

For at least the second or third time since the Covid-19 pandemic closed down restaurants, bars and other gathering spots in March, movie theater owners – through NATO – are warning that without some form of federal stimulus or bailout many will fail and shut down completely. Already a number of smaller venues have gone under while AMC Theaters has recently worked to raise what has been labeled “emergency” cash to stay open.

These calls come at the same time the country is…how to phrase this…still in the midst of dealing with the fraud and grift from certain current presidents following the recent election. That drama, along with the usual problems that come from having a lame duck executive and a Congress that will still be sharply divided is part of why House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi is still at odds with Senate Majority Leader and Man Who Would Like To Know Where The Hard Candies Are Hidden Mitch McConnell over the size of another stimulus package. Republican lawmakers in Washington are busy working to delegitimize the very foundation of American democracy and don’t seem to be interested in doing any work. If they had been, they likely would have done so before the election.

And then of course there’s the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Earlier this week there was news that research on a vaccine may be getting closer to a viable result, something that would undeniably help businesses of all kinds. That news was welcomed by theater owners as well as the CEO of IMAX, who called it “a game changer” that could provide some hope that, even if 2020 is a loss there may be some hope for the 2021 box-office. It was also good for the CEO of Pfizer, who sold millions of dollars in stock after his company’s share price jumped when the announcement was released.

We’re Not Out Of The Woods

But that is in the future. In the present, coronavirus cases have increased by 40% nationwide in recent weeks and hit a record 131,000 daily infections earlier this week. That trend – and it very much is a trend – has resulted in theaters in San Francisco and Sacramento closing for the time being. Governors around the country are rethinking in-person schooling and making other changes, while Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot has issued a stay-at-home “advisory” and hospitals in cities of all sizes are finding themselves once again at or above capacity.

In the week since I wrote this post on how the rest of 2020 looked in terms of big releases, four of the seven titles broken out have been either pushed out of this year indefinitely or moved over to streaming in some manner. Given we’re coming up on the point where the two-week incubation period for Covid-19 would take us up to the end of the year and the fact the infection rates are going up at the same time people are about to start violating guidelines en masse for the holidays, it’s a pretty safe guess that early 2021 is in danger, even if a vaccine has begun rolling out.

That anyone would put so much stock in the news of an unverified vaccine seems to be an exercise in grasping at straws. By all accounts it will be well into the summer or later before such a vaccine, if it does work, would be distributed to a reasonable extent in the U.S. Add to that the really odd politicization of that vaccine (which shouldn’t be surprising for various reasons), and when theaters or any other business could operate with any degree of certainty is called even further into question.

Oh, And There’s The Economy

Even economists have warned that a vaccine won’t be the magical cure for businesses some seem to believe it will be. Part of that is because while the official unemployment rate has again fallen, the number of individuals who now qualify as “long-term unemployed” because they’ve been out of work for over six months has spiked sharply in recent months. As a result millions of people will lose unemployment benefits at the end of the year.

As I’ve stated before, it raises the question of who exactly theater owners believe will be buying tickets whenever it is they do reopen. Plus, the release schedule is more backed up than the 290/294/88 interchange in the Chicago suburbs. My suspicion is that, as we saw a few months ago with Tenet, The New Mutants and a few other high-profile titles, the box-office returns are not going to be at pre-pandemic levels.

Instead I think we’ll see an increasing amount of whatever discretionary spending consumers have go to streaming, where people get more for their dollar and where they can instantly access whole libraries of material at a moment’s notice. And the media companies that own them will be more than happy to adjust their business models to oblige.

I hope theaters can survive this. But they’re not an isolated industry, which is why those same theater owners and studios should be front and center reminding the public to wear a mask, not gather in large groups and take other precautions to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Until a vaccine is universally-available – something that may not happen until 2022 – those are the best moves we can make and will help everyone get through this period as soon as possible.

Author: Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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