Movie theaters are making it ever more clear that they want studios like Disney to stop stalling and release their blockbuster films.
“We need their movies,” says John Fithian, president and chief executive of National Association of Theater Owners, WESH reports. “Distributors who want to play movies theatrically, they can’t wait until 100% of markets are allowed open because that’s not going to happen until there’s a vaccine widely available in the world.”
2019 was a year of blockbusters, especially from The Walt Disney Company, and their opening weekends continued a movie-going tradition that goes back decades. But movie theaters across the nation have now gone four months without a single blockbuster release, and the trend looks to continue.
Concerns over the pandemic’s continued spread across America have convinced Warner Bros. to push back the release of its Christopher Nolan movie Tenet, and Disney to now-indefinitely delay the release of its live-action remake Mulan. Disney also announced the delay of several other upcoming films well beyond 2020.
To satisfy the demand for new content, some studios have elected to bypass movie theaters all together. Disney, in particular, has released Artemis Fowl and its filming of the Broadway hit Hamilton on its streaming service Disney+ rather than wait for theaters to reopen.
“It seems prudent to think that indoors is where the lion share of transmission takes place,” says Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University. “You could think: well, it’s a movie theater. If you space people out, it’s a big room, tall ceilings. If they get the ventilation cranked up, it’s actually not the most concentrated environment. It’s not liked a packed bar with a low ceiling. It’s probably not as dangerous as that scenario. But is it more dangerous than sitting home and watching Netflix? Yes, of course it is.”
But Fithian believes that the theaters will not survive this cautionary trend.
“The longer this goes, there will be bankruptcy filings and reorganizations and there will be people who go out of business,” says Fithian, who WESH reports is lobbying for greater congressional support for theaters. “But if there are no new movies until that’s a vaccine, that’s a dire situation for a lot of companies.” He also believes that “75% of U.S. theaters” could be prepared and be ready to reopen within days if they had new movies.
To keep their heads above water, AMC recently raised $300 million in debt relief. But this is not just a matter of major companies staying alive. Over 150,000 people in the industry remain furloughed and there are private theater owners whose small business has been shuttered for several months.
Jonathan Kuntz, a film historian and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues that studios will now be forced to let go of the major nation-wide blockbuster weekend tradition as some markets open back up while others in California and New York remain shuttered. That is, if the even-older American tradition of going to the movies is going to survive.
He says, “If they don’t do something, if they just keep holding the films back, the theaters are going to die. Then everything’s going to just be streaming and we’ll have lost something a lot of people — not just Christopher Nolan — treasure.”
“The old distribution models of big blockbusters,” adds Fithian, “need to be rethought.”