(Bloomberg Opinion) — Movie theaters are starting to open their doors again, but they probably won’t find many patrons lining up for tickets as Covid-19 fears continue to weigh on consumer decisions.
On Thursday, AMC Entertainment Inc. will reopen 170 of its theaters around the country, including in cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Indianapolis, Miami, Nashville, Philadelphia and St. Louis. That’s in addition to 115 other AMC cinemas that resumed operations last week. The company has a goal of getting two-thirds of its 600-theater circuit up and running in time for Warner Bros.’ Sept. 3 release of “Tenet,” a spy film directed by Christopher Nolan that was originally scheduled to have its box-office premiere in mid-July. Regal, a subsidiary of London-based Cineworld Group Plc, and Cinemark Holdings Inc. are also reopening the majority of their U.S. theaters timed to the “Tenet” premiere.
Bringing back cinemas isn’t just about being able to go see a movie again. Their reopening symbolizes a greater return to normalcy — the ability to venture back out unafraid. But a sense that it’s safe to do so and that the virus is under control needs to come first. In a Morning Consult poll of 2,200 U.S. adults conducted in early August, 74% said they were unlikely to visit a movie theater in the next month; 60% of respondents who are considered frequent moviegoers said the same. About a third prefer to stream “Tenet” from home, while 13% said they would be willing to pay for an at-home digital rental.
Morning Consult also found that about half of its poll takers think Hollywood should delay all August and September theatrical releases. Of those, 54% said 2020 premieres should be postponed until next year. This is further evidence that virus fears themselves — not just state orders curtailing certain activities — are what’s hurting American businesses and the economy. (Read my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith’s June column, “Fear of Infection Hurt the Economy More Than Lockdowns.”)
AMC got this wrong once before when it said initially that it wouldn’t require theatergoers to wear masks when they returned. Chief Executive Officer Adam Aron said it was because the company didn’t “want to be drawn into a political controversy” over masks. That thinking backfired because requiring face coverings not only makes customers safer, it makes them feel safer, raising the likelihood that they will venture back out to busy public destinations such as theaters. After the backlash, AMC reversed course and will require everyone to wear masks. The chain and its rivals have detailed other safety measures, such as limiting the number of tickets sold, blocking off seats, enhanced cleaning procedures and upgraded air filters. Regal’s website also states that any ticket holder experiencing Covid-19 symptoms may request a refund online. Despite the industry’s efforts, most consumers may not be ready just yet to sit back and relax in a cinema recliner.
Other movie fans may consider some films worth it. For example, survey opinions were split over what to do with Walt Disney Co.’s “Mulan,” with almost as many people saying they’d prefer to see it in theaters as stream it on the Disney+ app. It’s perhaps reflective of both the power of Disney’s blockbuster films over the box office and the company’s need to keep those ties strong even as it goes all in on streaming. Disney ultimately decided to make “Mulan” available Sept. 4 exclusively to Disney+ subscribers, who will have to pay a $30 viewing fee on top of the app’s regular $7 monthly subscription price. (Comcast Corp.’s Universal has taken things further by cutting the time any of its movies remain exclusive at AMC to just 17 days.)
Apprehension about returning to theaters shows that just because businesses reopen doesn’t mean customers will show up. Mitigating the virus is still the key to restoring the economy.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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