July 10 is rapidly becoming the day for restoring the theatrical experience. Regal Theaters, the #2 domestic exhibitor, has announced plans to reopen all 564 North American locations (and more than 7,300 screens) by July 10. Cinemark, the distant #3 exhibitor, plans to open some of its 344 theaters this Friday, June 19 and all by July 10.
On that date, startup distributor Solstice Studios has the floor with the wide release of “Unhinged,” starring Russell Crowe as a deranged driver who goes on a road-rage pursuit of a mother and her son. Sony Pictures just announced that its recently acquired rom-com, “The Broken Hearts Gallery,” from rookie writer-director Natalie Krinsky and executive producer Selena Gomez, is moving from July 10 to July 17. And A24 just added its Toronto 2019-premiered horror film “Saint Maud” for July 17.
The Regal announcement comes after Warner Bros. delayed “Tenet” two weeks, to July 31. It will re-release director Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” July 17, with Disney still slated for “Mulan” on July 24. The financially challenged AMC Entertainment, still #1, has been less definitive but said that it wants to open nearly all locations sometime in July.
Exhibitors’ intentions will still need to clear the authorities in key places like New York City, Los Angeles County, and the city of San Francisco. Theater sources claim they expect to be allowed to operate by July 10, but the really meaningful date is July 24 — and in any event, those major-city locations typically represent less than 10 percent of the total national business.
Other countries’ “soft” openings saw library titles, delayed-play studio releases, and some local new entries. Results have been uneven; South Korea was ahead of most, but it had some cinemas open throughout the crisis. In Japan, “Little Women” has been touted for its performance last weekend at #1, but it saw fewer than 50,000 patrons in a nation of 126 million.
If our theaters follow the example of other nations, expect to see a combination of elevated safety measures, social distancing, and reduced ticket prices. Will ticket buyers feel reassured when Regal’s official statement said employees will wear face masks “where required by local governance,” and suggesting 50 percent capacity only where required?
Understandably, exhibition is eager to assert normalcy and it makes sense to begin operations ahead of top releases. Although these initial grosses will not define the performance of top films, and studios sit on unreleased films worth billions, the stakes are higher for theaters than for distributors. If theaters see weak responses to titles like “Mulan” and “Tenet,” it could further damage their financials. Smaller grosses also could serve as greater reason for studios to look toward other platforms.
The hope is results are enough to replenish their cash flow, guarantee the ongoing, long-delayed release schedule, and return to business that keeps their ships afloat. Meanwhile, daily reports continue of new COVID-19 cases spiking in multiple large population centers.
Unlike sporting events, theaters can’t generate revenue from broadcast rights. They rely on other people’s product, so they are going for broke. Hopefully, that’s not literal.