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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By Dónal Gannon

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 says was “pleasantly surprised” by the cleanliness and compliance with health guidelines, and has since gone to the theater several times, despite having Transverse Myelitis, a spinal condition that compromises her immune system. “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 such as mandatory masks and more rigorous cleaning schedules, theaters across the country are seeing low attendance. Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster “Tenet” was released on September 3rd, and has only made roughly $40 million at the domestic box office, compared to Nolan’s earlier big-budget films such as “Dunkirk” which made $50 million in its opening weekend in 2017, more than double “Tenets” opening weekend earnings ($20 million) as reported by Variety.

Part of this low attendance is due to new safety guidelines theaters have put in place which limit their capacity says Sean, 22 is a manager at a theater in south eastern Pennsylvania whose last name as been omitted as him and many other employees of theater chains fear termination for speaking with the press. “Our biggest theater capacity is 488 seats but right now we are only doing 25 people per theater,” said Sean in an interview. Theaters have limited available seats in theaters and socially distanced theater seats in line with health guidelines and have to allot time to clean the theater between each viewing  . 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, such as socially distanced seating and cleaning times between each screening. Sean and his team sanitizes high-touch points such as counters and doorknobs every 30 minutes, and many 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,” Sean said. 

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”.  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 delay 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 classic films with lowered ticket prices. 

“Without classic movies we would not survive” Noah, 22, a manager at a small theater in western Illinois said. “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 Wars: 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 one Sunday “only 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 if 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. Many theaters are beginning to feel starved for content as few new movies are being released and their supply of old movies is beginning to wear thin.

Although 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 Carroll, 53, is a nurse practitioner with New York Presbyterian Hospital, 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 Carroll. With some companies pivoting to a Video On Demand model for new releases, Carroll 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.” 

Some movie fans are not ready to disregard the theater. Stone Heyman said, “There’s just somethings about going out for the night. I think nothing will ever replace theaters in experience.”

However, for those who do want to go out to the movies Carroll 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. As soon as you leave go home wash your hands and possibly change your clothes.” 

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