TV & Movies

Peter Bart: Cinemas Confront Doomsday Scenarios As Studios Waffle On Release Dates

It seems like a distant memory — taking refuge in the welcoming comfort of a movie theater. And now it may become even more distant. Key players at the studios are worried that summer openings may simply not happen; further, that scores of movie theaters may not survive the year. Equally alarming: Ticket buyers are rearranging their habits, and their homes, to accommodate a future of watching the passing parade from their couches.

“We took the summer play dates for granted, but then we also assumed that the festivals would survive,” confides one distressed distributor. When theaters finally open, he fears, they will have to reinvent everything from seating to pricing to windowing. “Our leverage has been lost along with our audiences,” said one exhibitor.

Officially, decisions are still clouded. Two movies — Tenet from Warner
Bros and Mulan from Disney — have become the symbols of recovery. Both had warily announced July openings, but will they actually appear by summer’s end?

The obstacle course is familiar by now: The riots, the virus, the economy. The theater business already was limping due to mounting debt and high fixed costs. Major companies like Regal and Cinemark started closing locations in recent months. The number of theaters overall has fallen from 7,200 to 5,500 in the last 20 years with sharper declines now forecast.

AMC, the world’s largest exhibitor, owned by China’s Wanda Group, acknowledged this week that its debt and 97% decline in quarterly earnings “raised substantial doubt about our ability to continue as a going concern for a reasonable period of time.” AMC hopes the government’s bailout fund will help it restructure its $5.3 billion debt.

Exhibitors know that reduced capacity will be a fact of life once surviving theaters finally open. Another inevitability: More streamers will be booked at plexes. Landmark Theaters last year played such Netflix films as Roma and The Irishman. The pre-release of a major film like Hamilton on Disney+ also stands as a portent.

To be sure, the majors are resigned to the new ecosystem. Analysts predict year-to-year declines in ticket sales — from $11.4 billion to $5.5 billion in 2020 — with even steeper drops if summer openings totally disappear. These trends reflect the formidable problems confronting other edifices of culture like opera, ballet and museums. All are invading their endowments in order to survive.

One intriguing microcosm of change: In acquiring the century-old Egyptian Theater, finalized this week, Netflix assumes responsibility for a major renovation to be supervised, not by the usual cinema nerds, but also by its own dedicated techies. The streaming monolith thus will be rethinking projection, sound, seating and all other elements of traditional moviegoing – effectively re-inventing the experience of classic filmgoing. (The nonprofit Cinematheque will still richly benefit because it will be running its cineaste fare Friday through Sunday while Netflix will be free to run its events during the rest of the week.)

As all this transpires, many dedicated movie geeks are reassessing their in-home technologies to become less dependent on the vicissitudes of exhibitors. A mere $6,000, for example, buys a Kaleidescape Strato 5, offering a cineplex-quality image. And a new 820-watt JBL Bar 9.1 equipped with Dolby Atmos offers a 3D audio system to pinpoint placement of sound. Thus John Bailey, a noted cinematographer and former Academy president, will shift from his 60-inch home screen to a 4K 106-inch screen that will run classic films via The Criterion Channel.

Conventional filmgoers, meanwhile, might do well to worry about the future of tentpoles as well as of specialty films. Proprietors of art house theaters don’t require as much product as do the plexes — they look for those three or four films that can get them 8-10 weeks of playing time — but are even more dependent on the festival circuit for publicity. A key question: Will the major festivals return to form? Will talent turn out to support events at Toronto or Venice? For that matter, will filmmakers make the ride to Telluride?

Charles Cohen, who acquired the Landmark chain of 252 screens in 27 markets, insists that plans for a reopening are on the boards but he’s reluctant at this time to disclose specifics. Ted Mundorff, who presided over the growth of that company for over 15 years, now runs the Arclight theaters as well as the Cinerama Dome, and hence must worry about the future of tentpoles as well. Mundorff, too, is reticent about on-the-record predictions for an industry that’s been buffeted by so many conflicts.

Hence, the dilemma confronting filmgoers becomes a metaphor for that faced by our overall society: Somebody, somehow, must provide some sort of refuge from the agita of the moment. But presently, it seems more a distant flicker than a welcoming beacon.

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