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Uncertainty at the Cinema

It’s been about a month since the last time people were permitted in movie theaters and you can’t help but miss it. The giant screen, comfy seats, dimmed lights, ground-shaking sound, and the aroma of popcorn in the air is an experience you can’t replicate. While there’s so many movies to watch at home, it’s not the same with light cracking through the windows, people walking up and down stairs, a 32-inch screen, and the aroma of meatloaf at dinner circulating through the air instead. While we all miss moviegoing, we’ll have to get used to it because the news for theater survival is getting worse by the day.

In the past week, news has swirled around AMC Theaters, the largest cinema chain in the world, with executives considering filing for bankruptcy. Since the pandemic, AMC has furloughed their entire staff and does not have a penny of revenue coming through the door.

As AMC is on the brink of closure, so are other theater chains. Cinemark recently announced they’re raising $250 million in debt and Regal Cinemas’ parent company CineWorld is considering filing for bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, independent theaters are in the dark too. Many theater owners across the country are debating whether they can reopen and a lot of that rides on how effective the Paycheck Protection Program is, which is supposed to bring billions of dollars in relief to small businesses. In the meantime, independent theaters have asked patrons to buy gift cards and have ironically launched virtual cinemas, where customers can stream the latest indie titles for rent.

With the sky falling, it feels like the days of the cinema are on its last legs. But can they mount a return? Professor of Journalism and former film critic John Morano felt that the doors for cinemas weren’t completely closed, but there’s a lot up in the air.

“I can’t say how theaters will handle the crisis, but I tend to believe that independent theaters can survive,” said Morano. “A lot will depend on how long they are forced to stay closed. It’s also unclear what type of help, if any, will be provided by the government, both federal and state. Will landlords and vendors defer outstanding bills? These are unanswered questions at the moment.”

Even though there’s so much doom and gloom in the news, the future is still uncertain. Sure, chains like AMC could file for bankruptcy, but they have a good chance to reopen because of how dependent studios are for theaters. Without theaters, studios do not come close on their margins compared to releasing big-budget titles for streaming.

Wondering if theaters will reopen is one question, but it’s contingent on if people will come at all. On one hand, everyone is anxious to get out of their houses. But on the other, they may not have enough cash to go because of the widespread layoffs.

Chair of the Leon Hess Business School’s Management Decision Sciences Department and Professor of Management Stuart Rosenberg, Ph.D., thought there would be a demand for people to come back. “I realize that a lot of families will not have the disposable income they previously had, but a night out at the movies is a relatively inexpensive indulgence. Hopefully the movie studios will be ready with a bunch of strong films to help attract audiences back,” Rosenberg stated.

Rosenberg pointed out one of the biggest issues for cinemas: what movies will get people to actually go? Considering a lot of releases have been slated for later in the year or next, an idea would be to bring back some sure-fire hits. Maybe if big blockbusters like Star Wars, Marvel movies, or even classics like Ghostbusters or Indiana Jones came back to the big screen at a discounted rate, people could flock back because they know it would be a guaranteed fun experience.

To bring people in, that ticket price might be subject to change, according to Morano. “As far as disposable income goes, lower ticket prices combined with bargain snack packages or generous reward programs might be coming,” he said. “Films that are less expensive to make and have more modest advertising campaigns might also help with sticker shock on both the customers and the industry.”

Once people step back into the theater though, the experience is bound to change. It might be a while until we’re sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers in the dark. Rosenberg said, “Like a lot of other things, it might be a different experience. Theatres might have to employ some sort of social distancing.”

Before the lockdown, AMC launched their social distancing initiative by selling tickets at half capacity of their theaters. But Morano thought theaters may take it further. “It’s not just the seating; the lobby, the box office, even the bathrooms will likely require distancing rules for longer than we might imagine,” he thought.

Movie theaters, like many other businesses around the world, face a hard decision in the coming months to reopen. If they decide to, will there be enough good movies to show? Even if there are strong films, they may not be allowed to have as many people as they’d like because of social distancing. Not only will less people come, but they may have to slash their prices to enhance the appeal.

As far as this movie goes, I’m not sure what kind of an ending to expect. But boy, are there a lot of twists and turns.