Movie theaters in jeopardy as studios move blockbusters to 2021, audiences stay home

Key Points
  • Six months after the pandemic restrictions began, movie theaters are among the many businesses that do not have a clear path to recovery.
  • There are no major, big budget Hollywood films set for theatrical release until the weekend before Thanksgiving. 
  • Audiences remain hesitant to return to cinemas despite new safety protocols.

In this article

People wear protective face masks outside the AMC Lincoln Square 13 movie theater on the Upper West Side as the city continues Phase 4 of re-opening following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on September 22, 2020 in New York City.
Noam Galai | Getty Images

In late March, like many businesses, the film industry entered a period of forced hibernation as the U.S. went into lockdown to stem the coronavirus pandemic. 

With indoor cinemas closed, drive-in theaters were a lone bright spot until May, when some state governments began to loosen guidelines and permit indoor theaters to reopen to the public with limited capacity. It wasn't until August that major chains AMC, Cinemark and Regal unlocked their doors.

The hope was that once new Hollywood features arrived, so too would the audiences. That never happened.

Six months after the pandemic restrictions began, the number of deaths related to Covid-19 has surpassed 1 million globally.

As the world races to find a vaccine, the economy continues to struggle. Movie theaters are among a host of sectors that do not have a clear path to recovery. The threat of a resurgence of cases in the cooler autumn and winter months makes the future of the industry even more uncertain.

The theater industry is "not going to recover fully until consumers are confident that they won't die if they go to the movies," said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush. "That means no return to normal until there is a vaccine widely available, likely not until April to July 2021."

Blockbusters shift to 2021

The lackluster domestic box office has led Hollywood studios to pull blockbusters from the calendar, leaving cinema owners with limited content with which to entice moviegoers out of their homes.

Warner Bros.' "Wonder Woman 1984" moved from October to December, and "Black Widow," one of Disney's Marvel films, shifted its November release to May 2021.

There are fears that MGM's new James Bond film, "No Time to Die," and Pixar's "Soul," which both debut on Nov. 20, could be the next films whose debuts are altered. But for now, these films offer hope for Hollywood studios and movie theaters. 

"Right now, given that there is virtually nothing likely to produce significant revenue until late November, there is a likelihood that theaters may again shut down and that layoffs may recur," said Doug Stone, president of Box Office Analyst. "There is also concern that a significant number of less well-capitalized theaters will just give it up by year's end."

Movie theater stocks have taken a massive hit over the last nine months. As of Monday's market close, AMC's stock is down 32% since the start of the year, Cinemark has stumbled around 70%, Marcus Theaters is down 75% and IMAX has slumped 40%. On a combined basis, the sell-off has wiped out nearly $2.7 billion in market value for these stocks since January.

Major movie theater chains have been able to secure enough capital to remain solvent through the rest of the year and into 2021. AMC, in particular, warned it was in danger of bankruptcy before securing a new debt deal. Smaller, independent theaters may not have the same resources.

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"Over the next 12 to 24 months there is going to be a lot of bankruptcies," said Brent Turman, president of the Texas Association of Motion Media Professionals and an attorney at Bell Nunnally. "A lot of companies have weathered the storm so far, but I think we all know the storm isn't over."

Warner Bros.' "Tenet" was expected to drive people back to cinemas, but it failed to lure U.S. and Canadian moviegoers off their couches. The Christopher Nolan film garnered less than $10 million during its opening weekend in North America and has totaled $41.2 million since it opened Sept. 4. For comparison, the film has thrived internationally, tallying $242 million in those markets since its debut in August.

Since major movie theaters began to reopen on Aug. 21, the North American box office has garnered just $123.6 million in ticket sales, according to data from Comscore.

"2020 is basically a disaster," Stone said. "If the release slate stays stable, of which there is certainly no guarantee, I expect that Q4 will produce no more than about $1 billion in revenue, and perhaps less. This of course is a horrible number for a period that usually promises much much more than that."

In 2019, the domestic box office garnered $11.4 billion in ticket sales, the second-highest haul in industry history. So far in 2020, the U.S. and Canada have only tallied $2.05 billion.

At the same point last year, the domestic box office had generated more than $8.4 billion. 

Moviegoers remain at home

"I am not optimistic about the current state of the theatrical experience," said John Sloss, founder of Cinetic Media, a film financing and distribution company. "I think that when the pandemic starts to recede or goes away, it's going to take a real committed, coordinated effort from everyone in the industry to get the theaters running again and get people into theaters again."

Right now, audiences aren't returning to cinemas in droves. According to a weekly survey conducted by Morning Consult, a global data intelligence company, only around 22% of consumers feel comfortable returning to theaters.

Theaters have tried to make guests feel more comfortable by increasing sanitation practices, adding new air filtration systems in some locations and requiring masks. Still, one of the biggest reasons that potential moviegoers have said they are hesitant to return to cinemas is they feel they cannot trust other people to follow mask policies or to stay home if they are sick.

At many theaters, moviegoers are permitted to remove their masks when eating, but there is no way to ensure they replace their masks when they finish their popcorn.

Audience hesitancy to return to theaters, especially without fresh content, and studio hesitancy to release films with limited audience attendance is a "chicken-and-egg" scenario, Wedbush's Pachter said.

"If audiences are running 20% of capacity, it's hard to justify releasing a film," he said. "The closer we get to a vaccine, the easier the decision to delay into early next year, or at least later this year. If no new films are released, audience will run at lower than 20% of capacity. So, it's a vicious cycle."

There is some hope that the displacement of films into next year will bode well for 2021. The movie slate was already packed with high-profile titles.

Next year, in addition to "Black Widow," Marvel's "Shang-Chi and Legend of the Ten Rings" and "Eternals" will debut; the delayed "F9," "Minions: Rise of Gru" and upcoming "Jurassic World: Dominion" will arrive from Universal Studios, and Warner Bros. releases "The Batman," "The Suicide Squad" and "Space Jam: A New Legacy."

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. There's a third "Spider-Man" film, a third "Sherlock Holmes" adventure and sequels to "Venom" and "A Quiet Place." Disney's "Jungle Cruise" starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt is slated, and Tom Cruise films "Top Gun: Maverick" and "Mission Impossible 7" will hit theaters. 

But even a stellar lineup is no guarantee that audiences will be drawn back to theaters. 

"Even with an effective vaccine, there is doubt that more than half the country will avail itself of it, leading to continued concern about crowd events," Stone said.

 Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of Universal Studios and CNBC.