What Happens After Theaters Open?
By Phil Nobile Jr.
With the news this past week of WB sending its entire 2021 slate to HBO Max, we once again endured a wave of doom-and-gloom hand wringing about the death of movie theaters. No one’s mind was changed; no one shifted positions. It was like throwing a firecracker into a chicken coop – it resulted in all the noises you thought you’d get based on previously thrown firecrackers, but the chickens all acted like it was the first time it happened.
I’m no box office expert (assuming such a status even exists in 2020 and beyond), but all the drive-by opinions from those who are affronted by these choices, the people who act as if these decisions are being made lightly, frustrate me. Studios – Warner Brothers itself, in fact – tried to jumpstart theatergoing during the pandemic. It went horribly. Dropping every one of their releases on a streaming service (as loss leaders, no less) surely can’t be their first choice, but the folks who seem to be taking the decision personally, from the armchair quarterbacks on my Twitter feed to Christopher Nolan, don’t seem willing to face the simple fact that the theatrical experience as we know it is over. You can run as many scenarios and theoretical numbers as you like, and plan for the best case scenario re: vaccination in the U.S., but there is absolutely no data to answer the biggest question, the one that everyone’s argument against WB hinges on: what happens after we open movie theaters?
The year is 2021. You’ve lucked out and you were ahead of the nearly 300 million people in America who’ve been prioritized (ahead of me, anyway) for the vaccine. You even did everything right, going back for the second dose three weeks later. You’re as immune as science can make you to the virus. You’re Available To Go To The Movies.
Are you going?
As you ponder the Fandango ticket page, are you wondering if everyone else who patronizes your neighborhood theater is on the same page as you about the vaccine? Of the number that did show up for that first shot, how many were dissuaded by the first shot’s side effects to go back for the second, an occurrence that will likely reduce the overall effectiveness of the vaccine? Are you wondering how long the theater will maintain its distancing and occupancy policies, noting in your mind that airlines abandoned such measures pretty quickly? As you drive to the theater, will you be thinking about the underpaid employees at the theater who are responsible for sanitizing the auditorium? As you take your seat, will you be okay with the policy that requires you to keep your mask on? As the trailers begin, will the amount of other people in the theater who disobey the mask rule without consequence make you at all nervous? When you hear someone coughing in the theater, vaccinated or not, will you still be wrapped up in the film, or will your mind still be in that 2020 space of dread, anxiety and fatigue?
Lots of questions, but the only one I really care about: is this any way to experience a movie?
Though industries threatened with extinction must of course act and hope for the best, to pretend to know with any confidence what the 2021 moviegoing audience will show up for or put up with is disingenuous at best. There is every indication that on the other side of the vaccine, the things folks will show up in large crowds for are not the same things they showed up for previously. Before the virus, the frequency of moviegoing in America was already troubling. Again, I’m no expert, but the 2021 moviegoing experience sounds, at maximum, like a real drag. If you own a studio, are you releasing your 200 million dollar investment into such a climate? Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, in an interview that paints a more optimistic picture than I do, agrees that there’s a “reality that I think everybody is going to have to acknowledge pretty soon, which is that even with a vaccine, the theatrical movie business won’t be robust enough in 2021 to justify the amount of (prints and advertising) you need to spend to put a movie into wide release. There’s no scenario in which a theater that is 50 percent full, or at least can’t be made 100 percent full, is a viable paradigm to put out a movie in.”
These are truly unprecedented times, and for a solution to be reached, each participant in this particular ecosphere needs to evolve past the primal reaction of “GIVE ME WHAT I WANT!” No horror fan wants to watch Godzilla Vs. Kong on the small screen. No one would willingly give away a billion dollars in revenue. But once studios and exhibitors recognize that “normal” is not an option for the immediate future, they can start working together on results that serve everyone.