Regal Cinemas is set to reopen over the next 30 days, as parent Cineworld reopens its locations across the U.S., U.K. and Europe starting June 26th in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The chain’s management is growing more optimistic with major titles, including Mulan and Tenet set for release and a pipeline of movies throughout the back half of the year looking strong with Bill and Ted Face The Music, A Quiet Place Part II, Wonder Woman 1984, No Time To Die, Top Gun: Maverick and Black Widow.
Cineworld operates 787 locations and 9,500 screens in 10 countries, so studios desperately need the chain to reopen to ensure movies be available to audiences in theaters. AMC, the world’s largest chain, and Cinemark, the 3rd largest chain in the U.S., have also planned reopening for the next several weeks. All 3 chains will open with enhanced sanitization, social distancing and other procedures geared to keep health risks to a minimum. The chains will rely on advanced ticketing, seating space restrictions and modified concessions as well as increased cleaning as well as customer symptom screening as they reopen and operate in the future.
Cineworld, like its major global competitor, AMC, is saddled with a rather enormous debt load of $3.5 billion and recently secured hundreds of millions of dollars in additional cash through debt offerings and taking advantage of government relief programs in the countries around the world in which it operates. The company also, last week, abandoned its planned purchase of Cineplex, the leading chain in Canada, with 165 cinemas and 1,695 screens, citing ‘material adverse effect’ to terminate the deal. Cineplex, as a result, has announced that it will initiate legal proceedings against Cineworld to seek damages for the scuttled deal.
Reopening global cinemas has doubtless been causing many studio execs to lose sleep in the last several weeks. With the 2nd quarter 2020 movie releases basically abandoned, save for those hastily pushed to premium video on demand (PVOD) and streaming, the studio execs were on pins and needles trying to plan their 3rd and 4th quarter releases and how to lay out any further changes to 2021 and beyond.
In the last week, Warner Bros. committed a half dozen release date changes, including pushing Tenet back 2 weeks and delaying Wonder Woman 1984 into October from August. These changes also pushed other titles like Matrix 4 back in the calendar. Now, industry watchers wait for any evidence that Disney will either delay Mulan, pushing it from its July 24th planned release, either to a later date or directly to its streamer, Disney+, as it did with Artemis Fowl.
The fits and starts of returning the big business of cinema to ‘normal operations’ are far from over. Not only are release dates shifting as studio execs try to balance the need to help resuscitate the industry with their own desperate need for huge audiences to ensure big box office numbers for the opening of major titles that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce, advertise and distribute. They quietly worry over the reality that with cinemas held to 25% and, later 50%, capacity for the foreseeable future, new releases won’t see the huge openings that have been the cannon fodder of the Hollywood press and money machine for decades.
What will it mean when a film that costs $200 million to produce only generates $15 million or $20 million over a capacity restrained opening and must run for 8-12 weeks to serve the entire audience they would normally have served in 2-3 weeks? Even more troubling to those studio execs, it is predicted that 40% of Chinese theaters will never reopen, ripping a huge hole in the 2nd largest global movie market. U.S. theaters face a similar danger, with as many as 25% of U.S. theaters facing the possibility of failing.
Studios also must deal with the specter of a production pipeline that has been frozen for the last 3 months, that is just beginning a trickling restart. The global production halts have delayed many projects that were to fill a pipeline from later this year through the next several years. As all of these projects restart, they will undoubtedly run into resource bottlenecks as crews and facilities struggle to deal with the glut of both movie and television/streaming production restarting and as even the efficiency of those resources battle restraints and added costs of newly added restrictions and procedures meant to ensure the health and safety of their workers.
Industry watchers and analysts are predicting that the 2020 and 2021 box office will be dramatically impacted, with 2020 down more than 50% by some estimates and 2021 still down up to 25%. Other analysts, along with theater operators, worry that studios will begin to change the mix of product that gets to the big screens, opting for an increased allotment of their titles to head straight to PVOD or streaming. In fact, AMC and Regal (including parent Cineworld) have publicly stated they will ban Universal titles due to Universal’s announcement that they intend to push more of their titles direct to home release, a threat they’ve already made good on with Trolls World Tour and The King of Staten Island.
In the end, movie fans, theater operators and studio execs all want the industry to get back to normal. It is a certainty, though, that it will not be a smooth return to the status quo, and the path to ‘normal’ faces severe headwinds. The more likely case is that the world will settle into a ‘new normal’, where fewer titles hit the cinema, but those that do will be the big event pictures that will drive enough demand to fill seats for as long possible amidst capacity restrictions. Theater operators will be forced to deal with operating challenges including how to defray the increases operating costs, with fewer titles running longer and the question of what to fill screens with.
It is not at all beyond the scope of reason that we’ll start seeing streamers push their titles to the big screen, likely offering more exhibitor-friendly rental rates in return for added exposure. Major sports leagues may also look to push big games to the cineplex, hoping to offset loss of stadium revenues as they struggle with their own capacity restraints. Concerts, too, will likely push to distribute live events to the cinema as that industry also struggles with their ‘socially-distanced’ future.