While the coronavirus rages on, several states, including New York and California, have announced restrictions on large “non-essential” gatherings, which have impacted theatrical shows, sporting events, music festivals and conferences. Until now, however, movie theaters have managed to stay open as the pandemic escalates in the United States.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a Thursday press conference that his state’s rules, which also require people to maintain a six-foot distance in smaller gatherings, followed a similar ban in Santa Clara county — there, 79 residents are infected with the coronavirus and there’s a limit on gatherings of 100 people or more. But he specifically exempted movie theaters — along with casinos and theme parks — citing the “complexity of their unique circumstances.” (Most of the state’s casinos are run by indigenous people, which presents a jurisdictional challenge; since the governor’s announcement, most of the state’s theme parks, including Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood, have said they’d be temporarily shutting down.)
The film industry, which represents one of the largest economic drivers in the state, has been nearly capsized by the coronavirus, due in part to self-quarantines or thinning public crowds — according to a Hollywood Reporter/Morning Consult poll of 2,220 people, 38 percent “strongly” or “somewhat” support the temporary closure of movie theaters during the outbreak. The global box office damage: $7 billion, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Three months from now, notes the outlet, that number could reach $17 billion.
While countries like France, China, Spain and Italy (the latter of which is on a national lockdown) have increasingly locked their cinema doors, so far U.S. theater chains have been resistant to completely closing, instead preferring to limit access. On Friday, two of the largest — AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas — reduced seating capacities by 50 percent. In a statement to Yahoo Entertainment from AMC, CEO Adam Aron said, "These are uncharted times in the United States. We are very closely monitoring the guidance of the CDC. We are complying with all directives from federal, state and local health and government authorities, and with our unilateral move to reduce capacity and increase social distancing we are going beyond what governments are requiring of us.” The changes will remain until April 30.
A statement from Regal Cinemas read: “The health and safety of our customers and staff is very important to us. We are continuing to follow and monitor official guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health organizations. As the situation surrounding Coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to evolve, we are prepared to respond and ensure that Regal provides safe venues for our employees and our guests.” The company will enhance cleaning measures.
And ArcLight Cinemas introduced the use of an “EPA-approved, hospital-grade disinfectant” and hand sanitizers. “Our employees’ health is of the utmost importance to ArcLight Cinemas and we support and actively encourage employees who feel sick to stay home from work,” president and COO Ted Mundorff said in a statement. “ArcLight Cinemas provides paid sick time off so staff can remain at home and recuperate without fear of lost wages.”
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Canadian’s Cineplex Entertainment has reduced seating, and smaller California venues the Egyptian Theatre and Aero Theatre have curtailed screenings and events.
In Oregon, which canceled gatherings of 250 people or more until April 8, Laurelhurst Theater halved its seating to widen space between parties, and the Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse Cinema followed suit, asking customers to occupy every other seat.
Studios have began hedging against what will surely be reduced admissions by curtailing their release schedule. This week, Disney postponed the release of three films: Mulan, previously scheduled for a March 27 release, The New Mutants (April 3) and Antlers (April 17) “out of an abundance of caution”; Universal Studios delayed the May release of Fast 9 (the latest in the Fast & Furious franchise) to April 2, 2021; Warner Bros. paused Tom Hanks’s Elvis Presley biopic after the actor and his wife Rita Wilson were diagnosed with the coronavirus; and Paramount postponed the March 20 opening of Emily Blunt’s A Quiet Place Part II until “we have a better understanding of the impact of this pandemic on the global theatrical marketplace."
Earlier in March, due to a “thorough evaluation of the global theatrical marketplace,” the James Bond film No Time to Die was delayed from April to November. The major studios have also shut down production on films around the world.
And Broadway, meanwhile, has gone “dark” – on Thursday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tweeted that Manhattan theaters would follow a state ban on 500-person gatherings, amid 328 confirmed coronavirus cases in the state.
Donald W. Schaffner, Ph.D., Food Science Graduate Program Director at Rutgers University, tells Yahoo Entertainment there is no scientific reason to fear theaters in particular. “We know the virus can remain infectious on surfaces, but we don’t know whether fabric seats have higher rates of transmission,” he says. “Like most places, the risk likely comes from sitting in a theater next to a sick person.”
Analyst Karie Bible of Exhibitor Relations Box Office says economic bruising will be unprecedented. “Even after 9/11 or the Great Depression, people went to the movies to escape for two hours,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment. “This impacts the actors, but also production assistants, makeup artists, parking attendants and food service workers. Unemployment rates could be devastating, especially for the many freelancers or independent contractors who don’t get sick leave.”
Exhibitor Relations senior media analyst Jeff Bock agrees. “In 2019, we already saw about a 5 percent dip in movie ticket sales thanks to streaming services which are in engaged in eyeball warfare with film,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment. “As the coronavirus continues over the next few weeks and months, streaming — already with an advantage over film in terms of diversity and convenience — will become even more popular.”
The pandemic will undoubtedly dilute box-office numbers but the exact impact will take time to discern. “Going forward, we won’t know if films do poorly due to the coronavirus or their mediocrity,” says Bock. And the impact of regional theater owners may be irreversible. “The coronavirus has made a tough situation worse for theaters — some will shutter and never re-open,” he says. “You hope the little guys will weather the storm, otherwise, it’s like saying goodbye.”
For the latest news on the evolving coronavirus outbreak, follow along here. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.
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