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Movie theatres returned. Audiences didn't. Now what?

With things not expected to improve soon, analysts say future of theatre businesses is under threat

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An empty concession bar at a Las Vegas movie theatre. Ticket sales at theatres have been hit as people are staying away.

Los Angeles

TENET was supposed to mark the return of the movie theatre business in the United States. Instead, it has shown just how much trouble the industry is in.

After five months of pandemic-forced closure, the big movie theatre chains reopened in roughly 68 per cent of the United States by Labor Day weekend, in large part so they could show the US$200 million film, which Warner Bros promoted as "a global tent pole of jaw-dropping size, scope and scale".

But Tenet, directed by box-office heavyweight Christopher Nolan, instead arrived with a whimper: It collected US$9.4 million in its first weekend in North America and just US$29.5 million over its first two weeks.

Theatres remain closed in New York and Los Angeles, the two biggest markets in the US and the centre of Nolan's fan base.

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In the areas where Tenet did play, audience concern about safety - even with theatre capacity limited to 50 per cent or less in most locations - likely hurt ticket sales.

Box-office analysts also noted that Tenet is a complicated, cerebral movie with little star power; a frothier, more escapist offering may have had an easier time coaxing people back to cinemas.

Whatever the reason, the bottom line was strikingly clear: People aren't going to the movies at anywhere close to the numbers that Hollywood hoped, and things are not expected to improve in the near term.

Studios are postponing big movies again, prompting at least three studios to convene meetings on Monday to discuss how to proceed with other scheduled releases - leaving theatre owners without much new to offer for the next two months.

Some analysts have started to sound alarm bells about the future of the theatre business.

"We have no way of forecasting how long it will take for consumer comfort with indoor movie theatres to return," Rich Greenfield, a founder of the Lightshed Partners media research firm, wrote in a report on Monday.

In recent days, Warner Bros shifted Wonder Woman 1984 to Christmas Day from Oct 2, and MGM/Universal pushed back the slasher remake Candyman to next year. STX announced it was moving its Gerard Butler-starring disaster movie Greenland to later this year.

Marvel's Black Widow and Pixar's Soul are two films supposed to come out in November whose future now seems in question.

Theatre owners now must put their faith into two factors out of their control: studios staying the course with end-of-year releases, and New York and Los Angeles (along with San Francisco, the No. 3 market in the country) allowing theatres to reopen.

Death On The Nile from Disney's Twentieth Century division is the biggest-budgeted movie still scheduled to come out in October. If Black Widow (Nov 6) or the James Bond spectacle No Time To Die (Nov 20) get pushed back or moved online - as Disney did recently with Mulan - theaters are likely to face arduous conversations about their futures with investors and lenders.

In addition, the longer the pandemic drags on, the more that streaming becomes a threat to theaters. At least a dozen movies originally destined for big screens, including Hamilton, Trolls World Tour and Greyhound, have been redirected to streaming services or online rental platforms.

The move has kept money flowing to studios, but analysts say that it has undercut theatres by training consumers to expect new films to be instantly available in their homes.

"We're learning that markets being opened, cinemas having safety protocols and studios releasing movies are all tied together," John Fithian, chief executive of the National Association of Theatre Owners, said in an e-mail. "Open markets need safe cinemas, movies need open markets, cinemas need movies. All these things raise audience awareness and comfort in returning to movies. You can't do one at a time."

When it comes to the three largest film markets, expectations are tempered for both Los Angeles and San Francisco given the strict metrics California Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced as part of its reopening plans.

For New York though, exhibitors and studio executives alike are incensed that Governor Andrew Cuomo has given no specific time table for when movie theatres can reopen, coupling them with other large-crowd places like concert venues and amusement parks, while allowing bowling alleys and restaurants to resume indoor operations.

Not only is New York City crucial for sales, much of the media coverage and online buzz surrounding new movies is generated from there.

Tenet was not the only movie released in August, but the others - The New Mutants (US$15 million) and Unhinged (US$14 million) - haven't fared much better at the box office, although they cost less than half as much to make. NYTIMES

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