Movie Theaters & How They’re Fighting The Coronavirus Climate Right Now In The U.S.

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What we’re about to inform you about cannot be read into as an indication of long-term trends, or even short-term.

The state of exhibition and the domestic box office is changing by the hour in the current coronavirus climate and by tomorrow or even before next Friday we could be looking at a different theatrical landscape.

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The lingo “comping” is used by distribution and exhibition executives when discussing the historical comparison of titles at the box office or market conditions, and when it comes to this weekend at the box office, which saw a 22-year low of $55.3M (-45% from last weekend) according to ComScore this morning, there is no comp, not even the post-9/11 period, to what is occurring now at the marketplace. We’re in a very unique scenario for moviegoing, which has long been cherished and heralded as the industry that bucked the Great Depression.

While this weekend saw roughly 109 theater closings, as many as 25 overnight, in markets such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington DC, Seattle, San Francisco and more I’m told that they’re largely smaller theaters either complying with their local laws, or weathering unfortunate financial circumstances. Most AMC, Regal and Cinemark circuits remain open, as they vary their capacities in the 50% range and practicing social distancing policies and staggered seating as they vie to keep the lights on. All are ensuring heightened cleaning and hygiene practices throughout their theaters, not just auditoriums, but in food prep areas and bathrooms, and all are in close contact with the CDC, health authorities, etc. Here in Los Angeles, Arclight Cinemas President and COO Ted Mundorff released a statement to moviegoers saying that starting yesterday, the chain’s social distancing policy entails “selling seats in every other row and ask that guests choose seats with adequate space between other parties. Our ticketing system has been updated accordingly and the closed rows will show as blocked/not available for sale. This seating limitation will ensure that we are under recommended occupancy guidelines.” That seating situation is one that many venues have been experimenting with over the weekend.

“The circuits are doing a phenomenal job of being respectful to local government ordinances while at the same time trying to serve the community,” Universal domestic distribution boss Jim Orr told Deadline this morning about those exhibitors braving the marketplace over the weekend.

With the majors in recent days moving such big pics from the schedule, i.e. No Time to Die, Mulan, and A Quiet Place Part II among others, most exhibitors get in, and aren’t ticked off at the majors. This weekend isn’t like last weekend as consumers have headed to stores to empty shelves as they prepare to self-quarantine. There’s too much drastic going on in the marketplace. I’ve heard this has created a headache for the pre-sales part of the industry as a number of titles, such as Mulan and No Time to Die, had to be refunded. Depending on an exhibitor’s server, that has been painstaking for some as they are being forced to reduce their staffs during this low-traffic time.

Below is a slew of topics on the current exhibition environment right now:

With no major studio wide releases until Easter weekend, what will movie theaters do?

As of this minute, assuming coronavirus conditions ease in the next few weeks, DreamWorks Animation/Universal’s Trolls World Tour is expected to bring moviegoers back on Easter weekend, April 10, but many know that comes with asterisk.

Says one exhibition vet who has been programming for decades, “I was told during hard times in the business, to do it with class.” That means bringing back the Oscar season titles or programming popular catalog titles i.e. Marvel movies, Inception, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, Star Wars, etc. Many of these movies would be geared toward the prime moviegoing demo of older males, who are more apt to head out of the house during this time, then say females and older demos. I hear that Disney was offering the Fox library to exhibitors at generous terms to program. The key for exhibitors on catalog titles: Cut ticket price to $5 or $10 and hopefully reap the rest in concessions. “Now is the time to get creative,” says the same exhibition vet.

Also, we’re apt to see older releases from this year regaining screens. Any exhibitors who took off such titles early on, are apt to give those movies a second chance.

While catalog titles and older holdovers will return at favorable terms to exhibition, I hear that recent wide releases —Bloodshot, Onward, I Still Believe and The Hunt were billed at the typical scaleable norms which see the majority of the gross (around 50% to 60%) going to the studio in early weeks, a percentage break that eventually works its way to a theater’s favor in later weeks as they continue to hold a movie.

What about kids being off from school? Won’t that be good for business?

That’s the hope by both distributors and exhibitors: That kids get bored and eventually head out, but no one can say that with certainty at this point in time. According to the ComScore calendar, as of this Monday, there were originally 21% K-12 schools off and 29% colleges. Those numbers could be higher. There’s also the situation that many schools are keeping students in check at home with virtual classes.

With the lack of major studio product on screens, isn’t this a great time for independent movies to gain more ground in their first weekend releases and second weekend breaks?

Yes and No. This weekend we saw Focus Features’ Emma at 1,732 locations, +167, but its 4th weekend box office fell 71% with $1.37M from last weekend’s $4.8M. The audience for indie and specialty fare are older and higher educated people, which are the folks who aren’t heading to the movies in droves in the coronavirus climate. There’s also a scenario where such suburb specialty houses just can’t stay open, due to either local laws or overhead, i.e. the Jacob Burns Center in Pleasantville, NY or the Coolidge Corner in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Bleecker Street moved its NY/LA exclusive UK dramedy Military Wives starring Kristen Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan from March 27 to Memorial Day weekend, not only to capitalize on the veteran holiday, but in hopes for more robust city business. For some exhibitors, it’s best to stick to holdovers and catalog titles business-wise given that they have a higher level of awareness than indie fare which has little social media awareness.

Currently, Sony Pictures Classics is sticking to the NY/LA four-theater release of Michael Angelo Covino’s bromance Cannes Film Festival comedy The Climb next weekend and their Charm City Kings going 12-15 screens in NY/LA/Baltimore on Easter weekend April 10 followed by a 1,250 theater break on April 17, which was the label’s original plan. There’s a possibility SPC might add more bookings as they get closer to April 17. The movie, directed by Angel Manuel Soto, made its world premiere at Sundance, and tells the story of 14-year-old Mouse who desperately wants to join the Midnight Clique, an infamous group of Baltimore dirt-bike riders who rule the summertime streets.

Which markets got hurt the hardest this weekend?

Montreal, Canada (-72%, $209K), Boston (-65%, $509K), New York (-64%, $1.469M, 3rd best market this weekend) and Philadelphia (-62%, $551K). According to CNN’s coronavirus cases state map, New York now counts the most in the nation at 729, surpassing Washington state’s 642. Seattle-Tacoma is down only 47% at the weekend box office, earning $576K over the last two days.

Los Angeles, which is typically the No. 1 market every weekend remain just that over the last two days, but was off 53% with $2.6M from the same Friday-Saturday period a week ago. California currently has the third most cases in the country at 286 with a bulk in the northern part of the state. San Francisco which saw most of its exhibition shut down sans big gun theaters the Century and Metreon overall grossed $889K this weekend, -58%.

But there was some buoyancy in other markets, for example, Dallas which is typically the no. 5 market in a given weekend was No. 2 ($1.47M), only off 29% this weekend versus last, while Phoenix which typically ranks No. 9 was No. 4 (with $1.1M) off only 26%. That indicates that those markets weren’t hit as hard as others. Chicago was the 5th best market of the weekend with $922K, -55% from last weekend. Illinois ranks 10th with 64 coronavirus cases.

Weren’t the capacity restrictions put in place at cinemas partly to blame for this weekend’s downturn?

I’ve been told repeatedly by distribution that, no, that those capacity restrictions aren’t at fault. If business was robust for a particular showtime, then another showtime would be added. That capacity quota can always grow in weeks to come. The slowdown this weekend can squarely be blamed on society’s panic as they prepare for a possible nationwide quarantine.

Says one distribution executive this morning following this weekend’s fallout: “The general sense from exhibitors is that they really want to stay open and do everything in their power to make an environment that’s safe and possible for all moviegoers. They’re going to keep their doors open as long as they can as long as the ordinances don’t prevent them. ‘Curtailment’ is the operative word. When we come out of all of this, I think the industry would like to say that the one business that beat the coronavirus was moviegoing.”



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