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Even with Biden and a Vaccine, the Future of Theaters Looks Bleak Without Government Aid

As Regal closes all cinemas and release dates keep shifting, theater owners say Congress is their only hope — and they may be right.

An AMC Movie Theatre sits empty while being closed due to COVID-19 pandemic on October 29, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.

An AMC Movie Theatre sits empty while being closed due to COVID-19 pandemic on October 29, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.

Michael Buckner for Variety

Democrats won the White House, with Joe Biden as the President-elect; Pfizer announced its own news soon after: promising results for a COVID vaccine. For exhibition, these developments are positive — in the same way that a highway sign can confirm you’re headed in the right direction while still being thousands of miles away.

“Congress can save cinemas by including $15 billion for grants for independent venues in a COVID-19 relief package,” the National Association of Theater Owners announced in a November 9 press release touting the Save Our Stages Act. “Without industry-specific assistance, movie theaters simply will not survive the economic impact of the pandemic.”

It’s a dire pleading that evokes the hologram of Princess Leia imploring Obi-Wan Kenobi as her only hope (a speech recently repurposed as a way to ensure proper hand-washing practices). The $15 billion is meant for live theaters as well as cinemas, and only for those that are not owned by publicly traded companies or foreign interests (which removes the top three chains from consideration) and have outlets in fewer than 10 states.

For that subset of theaters, the odds of aid must also contend with a Trump White House that continues to pull focus over the election results, underdog odds that Democrats will control the Senate after January runoffs some eight weeks away, and finally that a COVID stimulus bill will pass with their requests intact and leaves room for loans, tax deferments, and other forms of temporary support.

In the short term, there is some good news: The Pfizer report immediately helped struggling exhibition stocks. AMC and Cinemark rebounded from recent near-low levels by with jumps of 25 to 50 percent. (AMC opened Monday 75 percent up, but quickly retreated.)

Stock prices are ephemeral. The more brutal truth is current levels of business remain abysmal as studios continue to push release dates forward and theaters are forced to close once more as COVID cases reach new highs on a daily basis. The industry is dependent on Congress acting in a way that benefits them, and on waiting for a vaccine that, in the very best-case scenario, would not be distributed until summer 2021.

“Nomadland”

More films delay theatrical release

Anxious exhibitors await word on whether “Wonder Woman 1984” will stick to its Christmas date (consensus: unlikely). Disney delayed its two December releases, keeping only Searchlight title “Nomadland.” Universal moved its Valentine’s Day 2021 tie-in, “Marry Me,” to May. Studios still have multiple wide releases scheduled for first quarter, but there’s fewer than usual and no likely blockbusters.

Regal may not reopen for months

Regal Theaters, the #2 chain, shut down most of its operations last month, saying it cost more to stay open than to close. The few remaining outlets will now close, as distribution sources say that the theaters will not reopen until a regular and reliable release calendar returns — and “Wonder Woman” would not be enough. And the impact, with New York and Los Angeles County closed and expected to remain so as well, would seem to make its holiday release even more unlikely. Regal did not respond to a request for comment.

The good news is small news

AMC is making more of its theaters available for buyout, allowing you to host up to 20 people for a private showing. (Prices range from $99-$149.) It’s a great idea for a Christmas gift, and could provide supplemental grosses and reduce customer safety concerns. It might also get people accustomed to returning to theaters, and allow them to see the care taken to protect patrons.

Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds took the Save Our Stages concept to the state level with a proposal that all Iowa theaters, locally owned and national, each receive a $10,000 allocation from federal aid received by the state. That could be a lifesaver for some small-town cinemas, and it could serve as a precedent to inspire other states.

“The Croods: A New Age”

DreamWorks

The world moves on

The best news for theaters is, so far, only a handful of top titles (Disney’s “Mulan,” Universal’s “Trolls”) chose PVOD or streaming over theatrical release. Mid-budget releases like “Antebellum” and “King of Staten Island” are more likely to go that route, not the ones that might gross $100 million or more. Still: The longer it takes to get back on track, the more studios try alternate routes, and the harder it will be for theaters to reclaim primacy.

Universal has been the steadiest theatrical supplier during the pandemic thanks to deal-making that gives them a PVOD window three to four weeks after release. “The Croods: A New Age” opens November 20, a DreamWorks Animation sequel that would have been expected to gross over $200 million domestic. It will be the biggest title to open since “Tenet,” and the most important with a home option available four weeks later. As AMC chairman Adam Aron said, with sharing PVOD revenues it might end up being a viable model. Even if it’s not, however, it creates a template for radically shortened windows as a new normal.

NATO is right: The time to act is now

The NATO statement may have placed too much faith in the hoped-for vaccine, but it otherwise conveys the urgency. People who want the chance to return to their local movie theaters need to recognize that it is at risk. Congressional assistance may be a long shot, but surviving COVID may be an even longer one.

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