Both AMC and Regal, respectively the country’s largest and second-largest theater chains, are set to reopen in the coming months to the extent that different lockdown regulations permit. But they, along with all the other movie theaters in the U.S., with the exception of drive-ins, face a daunting battle to survive.
The first challenge they face is to convince consumers that it’s safe to sit in an enclosed room with lots of strangers for two hours or more during a pandemic, even wearing masks. That of course assumes everyone will keep their masks on, which is very unlikely to be the case. It’s hard to eat popcorn or other foods and to drink with a mask on, the sale of food and drinks being the financial bread and butter for movie theaters.
The second challenge is that with social distancing, you can’t fill the theaters and accommodate the large number of moviegoers on weekends when the majority of attendance takes place. Social distancing will reduce seating capacity anywhere from 50% to 75%.
The third challenge is to have movies that people really want to see, the blockbusters that make people want to attend, generating around two-thirds of box office ticket sales. Most movies that were due for summer release have either moved their dates to winter or next year, or they have been released on streaming services.
And the fourth challenge is that during the lockdown, we’ve trained people to watch movies even more at home with VOD (video on demand), including new releases. “Trolls World Tour” released on demand made as much money for Universal Pictures as it did releasing “Trolls” at the box office. A May 20 survey from Performance Research showed that 70% of people would rather watch first-run movies with the comfort of their homes.
We have several recent national polls on the willingness of people to return to movie theaters. It should be noted that all the following polls were conducted in June when AMC, Regal and other movie chains were planning to open in July and the live-action remake of “Mulan” and the science-fiction thriller “Tenet” were scheduled for release. AMC and Regal have just postponed their openings until the very end of July and the release dates for the two movies have been pushed back into August. Nevertheless, I believe the poll results are still valid in terms of projecting what percent of people are comfortable returning to cinemas and how soon, just everything is delayed by one month. The one exception might be that the recent surge in coronavirus infections might reduce the percentage of people who are comfortable and/or likely to visit movie theaters in the near future after they open.
The Morning Consult June 23-26 poll asked people how likely they were to return to movie theaters in July.
Only 10% said they were very likely to return in July. Six in ten (61%) said they were very unlikely to visit a movie theater in July.
Morning Consult’s other June 23-26 poll asked registered voters how comfortable they were going to the movies and when they would feel comfortable. 58% said they were very uncomfortable and another 20% said somewhat uncomfortable, adding up to over three-quarters (78%) uncomfortable to some degree.
Only 19% said they would be comfortable going to the movies in the next month and 44% said it they wouldn’t feel comfortable for more than six months from now.
A recent June 21-25 poll by CivicScience asked adults how soon from now would they be comfortable going to a movie theater. In terms of comfortable (but no intent), 23% said now or in 2-3 weeks. However, 55% said they wouldn’t be comfortable for six or more months, suggesting they are waiting for the vaccine. With 65% of Americans previously attending movie theaters, that strongly suggests that movie theaters will be facing a greatly decreased potential market, even if they have blockbusters films to screen.
The poll also broke down the results by previous movie-going frequency. Just slightly over one-third of regular movie-goers who previously went monthly or more frequently said they were comfortable visiting a movie theater within 3 weeks. Nearly half (49%) of those film-junkies said it would be 4 months or more before they return.
CivicScience said people are more cautious and hesitant to return to the cinema than nearly any other out-of-home activity they track including retail stores and restaurants. Only major public events such as sports and concerts fared worse. This is consistent with results from the other polls I follow.
The majority of these polls asked about people’s comfort to go to the movies. Other polls and research I’ve examined have shown that only around half of people who say they are comfortable doing something within a particular time frame actual intend to do it within that timeframe.
Things are sure looking rather horrific for movie theaters. Their likelihood to financially survive to the other side of the pandemic looks very questionable.