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Movie theaters begging for new blockbusters

'...they can’t wait until 100% of markets are allowed open because that’s not going to happen until there’s a vaccine widely available in the world.'

Posted: Jul 23, 2020 3:17 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — A long time ago in a pre-COVID universe far, far away, blockbusters opened around the globe simultaneously or nearly so. In 1975, “Jaws” set the blueprint. Concentrate marketing. Open wide. Pack them in.

Since then, Hollywood has turned opening weekends into an all-out assault. Staggered rollouts still happen, of course, but the biggest films are dropped like carpet bombs. Anything less risks losing the attention of moviegoers. Global debuts north of $300 million became commonplace. Last year, “Avengers: Endgame” made well north of $1 billion in a couple days.

Hollywood has now gone more than four months without a major theatrical release. While some films have found new streaming homes, the biggest upcoming ones — “Tenet,” “Mulan,” “A Quiet Place Part II” — remain idled like jumbo jets on the tarmac. The leading chains are still shuttered. Recent coronavirus spikes have forced release dates to shuffle and chains to postpone reopening to August.

Now, movie houses say that despite far from ideal circumstances, it’s time for new movies. Four months of near zero revenue has brought the $50 billion annual business to its knees. While the beleaguered restaurant industry still has takeout and airlines continue to operate with masked flyers, the vast majority of U.S. movie theaters haven’t punched a single ticket since March. Some have turned to selling popcorn curbside.

“The problem is, we need their movies,” says John Fithian, president and chief executive of National Association of Theater Owners. “Distributors who want to play movies theatrically, they can’t wait until 100% of markets are allowed open because that’s not going to happen until there’s a vaccine widely available in the world.”

“The old distribution models of big blockbusters," adds Fithian, “need to be rethought.”

That may mean returning to a more old-fashioned release pattern, opening films overseas first and, in the U.S., opening at different times in different areas. When Warner Bros. earlier this week announced it was delaying the release of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” because of the rise in cases, Warner Bros. Pictures Group chairman Toby Emmerich said the studio is “not treating ‘Tenet’ like a traditional global day-and-date release.”

The coronavirus crisis has ushered in new chapter in the often symbiotic, occasionally quarrelsome relationship between distributors and exhibitors. Splitting ticket sale revenue approximately in half, their fortunes have often been closely linked.

The largest studios — the Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros., Universal — now all have streaming services of their own now, along with television operations. So they have options. The on-demand release of “Trolls” caused a rift between Universal and AMC. But the two halves of theatrical moviegoing have worked largely in concert through the pandemic thus far.

It’s in their own self-interest. Studios have been loath to sacrifice billions in box office for their priciest and most popular releases. On Thursday, John Stankey, chief executive of Warner Bros. parent company AT&T said direct release to HBO Max could be option for some Warner Bros. movies but not the $200 million “Tenet.”

With distancing protocols and other measures, cinemas have reopened in parts of Europe, the Middle East and South Korea, where last weekend Yeon Sang-ho’s “Train to Busan” action sequel “Peninsula” debuted with $13.2 million. Theaters in China, the world’s second largest movie market, this week reopened with theaters limited to 30% capacity.

North America, usually the main event of a blockbuster release, may have to learn to follow the rest of the world.

Despite the virus surge in much of the U.S., exhibitors believe they can operate relatively safely by adhering to health officials, decreasing theater capacity and cleaning in between showings. After initially flip-flopping, AMC will require patrons to wear masks. AMC, the world’s largest circuit, on Thursday delayed its reopening from the end of July to mid-to-late August, a timing that it said reflects the expected new release dates for “Tenet” and Disney’s “Mulan,” now slated for Aug. 21.

Some moviegoers, naturally, don’t anticipate going, regardless of what comes out. Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, isn’t planning to go to the movies this year.

“It seems prudent to think that indoors is where the lion share of transmission takes place,” says Shaman. “You could think: well, it’s a movie theater. If you space people out, it’s a big room, tall ceilings. If they get the ventilation cranked up, it’s actually not the most concentrated environment. It’s not liked a packed bar with a low ceiling. It’s probably not as dangerous as that scenario. But is it more dangerous than sitting home and watching Netflix? Yes, of course it is.”

But imperfect may be all cinemas and studios have for now. Fithian believes 75% of U.S. theaters could be open within days if they had new movies. (Those currently open are mainly playing older films.) Theaters are closed in California and have yet to reopen in New York despite the state’s relative success in combating the virus. That removes the two top cities in ticket sales, Los Angeles and New York.

“The longer this goes, there will be bankruptcy filings and reorganizations and there will be people who go out of business,” says Fithian who’s currently lobbying for greater Congressional support for theaters. “But if there are no new movies until that’s a vaccine, that’s a dire situation for a lot of companies.”

AMC recently raised $300 million in debt relief to help itself remain solvent. Throughout the industry, some 150,000 workers remain furloughed.

Jonathan Kuntz, a film historian and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, says “Tenet” “was made for a world that no longer exists.”

But as much as the familiar kind of worldwide launch is now impossible, the downside of improvising might not be as bad as it seems — provided piracy isn't widespread. There will be scant competition. “Tenet” can take up most screens. Its opening can be spread out through the week. Advertising will be cheaper. Audiences will have little to distract them.

“They’re going to have to be very inventive and very nimble to squeeze what they can out of this movie and maybe set a pattern for this kind of COVID theatrical universe we’re moving into,” says Kuntz. “If they don’t do something, if they just keeping holding the films back, the theaters are going to die. Then everything’s going to just be streaming and we’ll have lost something a lot of people — not just Christopher Nolan — treasure.”

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 124439

Reported Deaths: 2292
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hennepin32336965
Ramsey13342347
Dakota9251133
Anoka8093148
Stearns537035
Washington525967
Scott318534
Olmsted307029
St. Louis264763
Wright227614
Nobles214016
Clay203243
Blue Earth19707
Carver16957
Rice15789
Sherburne156221
Kandiyohi15494
Mower148912
Winona118918
Lyon9256
Waseca9129
Crow Wing87921
Chisago8552
Benton8415
Beltrami7687
Otter Tail7436
Todd7232
Steele7212
Itasca67617
Nicollet67317
Freeborn6324
Morrison6076
Douglas6043
Martin58616
Le Sueur5855
McLeod5703
Watonwan5674
Goodhue51111
Pine5090
Polk4924
Becker4893
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Carlton3781
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Murray2483
Fillmore2380
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Swift1921
Wadena1880
Kanabec18610
Houston1811
Stevens1681
Lincoln1650
Pennington1631
Koochiching1624
Aitkin1542
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Lac qui Parle1232
Lake1030
Mahnomen941
Norman940
Grant894
Marshall871
Clearwater760
Red Lake602
Traverse530
Lake of the Woods421
Kittson270
Cook110

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 107481

Reported Deaths: 1537
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Polk17984282
Woodbury682088
Johnson563830
Black Hawk519196
Linn5047126
Dubuque467952
Scott404134
Story385317
Dallas329143
Pottawattamie295644
Sioux229712
Buena Vista220012
Marshall192636
Webster170014
Plymouth153925
Wapello147162
Clinton135525
Muscatine133958
Crawford130912
Cerro Gordo124923
Des Moines12139
Warren11496
Carroll10288
Jasper102034
Henry9785
Marion92410
Tama90037
Lee8719
Wright6871
Dickinson6847
Delaware6798
Boone6778
Mahaska61422
Bremer6128
Washington61011
Harrison5768
Jackson5283
Lyon5147
Benton5031
Louisa49115
Clay4844
Hamilton4433
Winnebago43716
Winneshiek4339
Hardin4285
Poweshiek42811
Kossuth4220
Floyd41511
Jones4113
Emmet39914
Buchanan3933
Cedar3855
Iowa3776
Franklin37318
Guthrie36914
Cherokee3652
Sac3643
Clayton3503
Page3470
Butler3442
Shelby3441
Madison3432
Fayette3412
Mills3361
Allamakee3278
Chickasaw3221
Clarke3123
Cass3052
Humboldt2913
Palo Alto2861
Hancock2814
Grundy2804
Calhoun2644
Osceola2480
Howard2479
Monroe23811
Mitchell2300
Monona2281
Taylor2202
Pocahontas2092
Union2094
Appanoose2013
Jefferson1901
Lucas1866
Fremont1781
Ida1772
Greene1730
Van Buren1572
Davis1554
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Keokuk1401
Adair1331
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Decatur1290
Worth1270
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Adams670
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