Georgia governor wants to reopen movie theaters next week, but big chains are likely to hold out for summer

Key Points
  • Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp will allow movie theaters in his state to reopen starting April 27.
  • However, major theater chains aren't going to be able to flick a switch and open their doors for business.
  • Cinemark is still aiming for a July reopening, the company said.

In this article

Tim Macpherson | Iconica | Getty Images

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp will allow movie theaters in his state to reopen starting April 27, but it's not looking like that many will. 

Major theater chains like AMC and Cinemark aren't going to be able to flick a switch and open their doors for business, Eric Wold, analyst at B. Riley FBR Research, wrote in a research note Tuesday.

Large cinema companies have furloughed or laid off almost all employees and locations across the U.S. have been shutdown since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic. It would be difficult for them to staff, train and open in the next week, Wold said. 

And many wouldn't want to, anyway.

When contacted, Kemp's office reiterated a list of 20 protocols that businesses are subject to, which include screening workers for signs of illness or fever, increasing sanitation of the workplace, providing personal protective equipment, suspending the use of pin pads, increasing physical space between workers and customers and providing disinfectant and sanitation products for workers to clean their work spaces. The state of Georgia will be releasing more guidance this week, a spokesman told CNBC.

Those protocols are likely going to restrict attendance at movie theaters.

Another hurdle is the movie calendar. With so many film releases postponed, it's unclear how theaters would coax moviegoers to turn out.

"The initial box office revenues would be generated by smaller, independent exhibitors," Wold wrote. "Given that investors are likely to extrapolate any results out of Georgia against prior nationwide results, this could prove disappointing."

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Then there is the question of liability. Theater owners are still exploring what legal issues they could face if moviegoers contract Covid-19 while at the theater. It's currently unclear if the burden would fall on the theater company or the state.

States across the U.S. are facing pressure from President Donald Trump as well as some protesters who don't want the country's economy to remain closed. Trump's "Opening Up America Again" plan is an 18-page document that identifies the circumstances that would be necessary for areas of the country to reopen and allow employees to return to work. The decision to lift restrictions is up to state governors.

However, lifting stay-at-home orders too early poses the risk of inducing a second wave of infections. Already, the U.S. has more than 788,900 cases of Covid-19 and at least 42,400 deaths caused by the disease.

"Individual movie theater companies, in line with federal, state, and local guidelines, and in cooperation with health officials will decide for themselves when it is appropriate to reopen," Patrick Corcoran, vice president of the National Association of Theaters Owners, said.

Representatives for AMC, Regal Cinemas and Marcus Theatres did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

Last week, Cinemark, the third-largest movie theater chain in the U.S., said it hopes to reopen at least some of its doors to the public in July, but that's just one of several possible scenarios the company has plotted out based on state social distancing regulations. 

The company reiterated that plan in an email to CNBC Tuesday.

CEO Mark Zoradi had said the company would stagger seating arrangements to allow some space between moviegoers, but may have to shorten hours. Cinemark laid off its 17,500 domestic hourly employees in March, but hopes to begin rehiring in June so that it can train new workers before opening to the public.

Its planned July reopening was based on the current studio release schedule, which sees Christopher Nolan's sci-fi thriller "Tenet" arriving in theaters on July 17 and Disney's "Mulan" arriving on July 24.

"The King of Staten Island," a comedy from Universal, remains on the calendar for June 19, and Warner Bros. "Wonder Woman 1984" is set to debut on Aug. 14.

However, release dates continue to shuffle. On Tuesday, Sony pushed the Andy Serkis-directed "Venom: Let There Be Carnage" from Oct. 2, 2020 to June 25, 2021. Just a day before Warner Bros. moved half a dozen films on its slate to new release dates.

And, depending on future social distancing restrictions, more movies could be forced to vacate their opening dates.

Otherwise, theaters could play so-called library movies, or films that have already previously been released in cinemas, during the period where there isn't a new movie release. Companies like Fatham Events have hosted these kinds of releases, bringing back movies like "Gone With the Wind," "Batman" and "Star Wars" to the big screen. However, if there are still concerns about potentially contracting coronavirus, moviegoers may not want to stray from their homes to see a film they could already watch from home.

In March, AMC, the largest movie theater chain in the U.S., had said it expected to be shut down for six to 12 weeks, which would place its reopening between May and mid-June. At that time, CEO Adam Aron told CNBC that the company was still exploring what its strategy would be once it is able to reopen. He cited temperature-reading machines as well as stricter cleaning procedures as measures it could take.

More than 26,600 theater and corporate employees working for AMC have been furloughed or let go, including Aron.

"We remain comfortable with our modeled projections for a mid- to late-June restart for the domestic exhibition industry and believe that any expectations for more than meaningfully depressed results in 2020 are optimistic at this point — and investors should continue to focus on more normalized trends heading into 2021," Wold said.

"We continue to project a 2020 domestic box office decline of [about] 40% compared to already depressed 2019 levels," he added.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.

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