Box Office Future: Exhibitors Hope to Reopen in June, Audiences Say Slow Your Roll

Theaters had a tough week with a survey and financial analysts not showing much love, but exhibitors and studios were more optimistic.

Week three of no theatrical releases. That will technically change soon — Universal’s premium VOD-opening “Trolls World Tour” has a handful of still-open drive-ins to play (don’t expect any grosses reported). But it was a week full of important stories, with particular interest in a series of release date adjustments. However, no date can be realized if theaters aren’t open, and nobody knows when that will be.

• Exhibitor trade organization NATO held a webinar Friday. President John Fifthian raised hope that some theaters might be open by late May or early June. AMC Entertainment CEO Adam Aron, who oversees the most screens in North America reiterated his hopes for mid-June.

• With the COVID-19 still in its early stages of national spread, uncertainty about the curve flattening, and signs that in China, which had the earliest outbreaks three months ago, that viral decline doesn’t equal viral defeat, the reality is it could be weeks before anyone can make a reasonable assessment on reopening.

• Countering industry optimism that after weeks indoors, people will flock to theaters is a survey by Performance Research about public attitudes on return to public events. It saw 49 percent of respondents saying feeling safe about returning to theaters ranged from in a few months to never, with 28 percent saying if they do return, it will be less often. That said: This is a snapshot taken nearly two weeks ago, and shouldn’t be considered predictive. It showed similar or worse results for sporting events, concerts, and theme parks.

• Sports league executives spoke with President Trump, who urged resumption as soon as possible. However, Dr. Alan Sills, chief medical officer for the NFL, cautioned it is premature to believe that football can return this fall. Governors in some states that aren’t fully shut down, like Nebraska, encouraged voluntary compliance — with the threat that if the virus isn’t contained, their ardent fans might not have a season. Sports, of course, demand close player (and spectator) contact, and are more vulnerable even than theaters to the ongoing threat of contagion. But the idea that it is conceivable the country could have a year with no more sports is even more shocking than disruption to theaters.

• The key takeaway from multiple studio release schedule changes is, in re-dating titles, they don’t expect theaters to be fully operational until July at the earliest. Though key June and July titles like Pixar’s “Soul” and Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” remain in those months, “Mulan” on July 24 is the earliest rescheduled date for any major title. Other date changes act as a diversion while theaters are closed, but the reality is everything is written in pencil, not pen.

• The most critical aspect of the new schedules is, for now, studios remain committed to theatrical release. Three titles are dropouts: Universal’s “Trolls” sequel, Paramount’s “Love Birds” (sold to Netflix), and Disney now self-streaming “Artemis Fowl.” That more haven’t opted for this route shows hope of a near-term resumption and preference for the theatrical model. Paramount is returning (as of now) on July 31 with “Sponge on the Run;” the more-anticipated “A Quiet Place Part II” and “Top Gun: Maverick” are now in September and December, respectively — safer dates. If theaters remain closed and consumers flock to “Trolls,” might “Sponge” go VOD?

• Before the closures, AMC’s financial health was not good. Standard & Poor’s has now reduced its credit rating to CCC, or to negative outlook status. The report said the company likely lacks the liquidity to manage negative cash flow. AMC has already announced a total staff furlough, including executives. A step like gives greater urgency to requests to creditors, including landlords, lenders, and distributors for a grace period.

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