Theaters are coming back, but blockbusters and patrons aren’t following them

Movie theaters across the country were one of the many businesses shut down in the wake of COVID-19, now they are slowly reopening, but low capacity and a lack of new movies have resulted in poor attendance.

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Roxanne Kemmerer, 40, used to go to the movies at least once every week before COVID-19, and was one of the first to return to her AMC theater in Tampa, Florida. Kemmerer was “pleasantly surprised” by the cleanliness and compliance with health guidelines, and has since gone to the theater several times, despite being immuno-compromised. “I thought I would be the only one with a mask on,” said Kimmerer in an interview, “Honestly so far in public, the movie theater has been the cleanest place that I’ve been, you could smell the clean in the air.”

Despite the new measures, theaters across the country are seeing low turnouts. Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Tenet was released on September 3rd, and has only made roughly 40 million dollars at the domestic box office, compared to Nolan’s last big-budget film Dunkirk which made 50 million in its opening weekend in 2017.

Part of this low turnout is due to the guidelines theaters have put in place, limiting seats says Sean, 22 is a manager at a theater in south eastern Pennsylvania and. “Our biggest theater capacity is 488 seats but right now we are only doing 25 people per theater,” said Sean. With capacities cut to as little as 10%, even a sold out weekend can be only equal about as much as one day’s ticket sales pre-Covid.

AMC, Cinemark, and other major chains that have been able to reopen have put rigorous new safety practices in place, to try and protect movie goers. Sean and his team sanitizes high-touch points such as counters and doorknobs every 30 minutes, and all national theater chains have imposed a mandatory mask policy to make the theaters as safe as possible. “ I think just seeing us wiping counters and all wearing masks has a big effect on people feeling more comfortable,” said Sean in an interview. 

Stone Heyman, 20, was initially cautious about returning to the movies, he said in an interview, “I think I would only go back for a big release, I really love Christopher Nolan so I went to see Tenet, so I’ll probably go towards the end of the year, but I won’t risk it if there isn’t anything new.” 

An issue that is facing theater reopening is the pushback of film releases by studios, leaving many theaters without anything new to show. Major film studios have moved many of their big releases such as Wonder Woman 1984 and The Croods: a New Age back to later this year in hopes more people will come to the theater. To fill seats, cinemas have been rolling out the classic films with lowered ticket prices. 

“Without classic movies we would not survive” said Noah, 22, a manager at a small theater in western Illinois. “We’re making enough to pay the bills, end of November going into December is when the metaphorical cork of releases comes out, I think if we make it to December, we’ll be perfectly fine.” Films such Star War: Empire Strikes Back (which is in it’s 40th anniversary) and family films like Shrek have helped many theaters fill the gap in releases but many are concerned if movies do not return soon, theaters will have nothing to show.

“The classic movies are actually performing better than some of the new ones,” said Scarlet, 21, a theater worker for a national theater chain in Louisiana, saying in an interview on a Sunday “four people saw Kajillionaire but we almost sold out for Empire Strikes Back.” 

“The thing that baffles me is the mindset of the film studios, because they’re too worried about making every dollar possible, theaters won’t be able to survive,” said Noah, who’s theater has seen some patrons returning, but is now struggling with lower attendance.

Though theaters are taking great measure to ensure safety, some medical professionals are unsure if it’s the right time to return to the movies. Joanne, 53, is a nurse practitioner in New York City, one of the places hit hardest by the pandemic.

“You want some normal fun in your life but it’s a balancing act, I think the best thing these places can do is have monitoring in place,” said Joanne. With some companies opting for VOD releases, Joanne offers an alternative to the movies, “There are so many things you can see from your computer that I don’t know it’s so necessary to go to theaters, you can see a movie on your screen on Netflix or Hulu, where you’re not putting people at risk.” 

However, for those who do want to go out to the movies Joanne suggests, “The safest way [to go to the movies] is to make sure you are 6 feet apart, wear a mask all the time bring hand sanitizer, don’t eat, and if you have something to drink do it under your mask and as soon as you leave go home wash your hands and possibly change your clothes.” 

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