By R.T. Watson
A year into the Covid-19 pandemic, Hollywood studios and movie theaters hope a recovery is on the way.
Some theaters in two of America's biggest box-office markets, New York City and San Francisco, will be open this weekend after being closed for the better part of the past year. As cities slowly reopen public spaces and more Americans receive vaccines for Covid-19, moviegoing is poised for a comeback, though there is a long way to go before all the nation's screens are flickering alight.
Theater owners are gearing up. Some Hollywood executives are advancing film releases that had been delayed. And for films scheduled to open in theaters in coming weeks, customer interest in returning, plus box-office results in New York City and San Francisco, will begin to test the wisdom of studios' unprecedented decisions in the past year -- namely to premiere films simultaneously in theaters and on digital streaming services.
Movie theaters elsewhere in the U.S. have been open for months, including in Florida, Texas, and Ohio, but box-office results have been grim. The largest top few movie-theater markets in the U.S. make up a large percentage of box-office revenues when a film comes out.
"Adrenaline is definitely pumping and definitely excited about reopening, " said Scott Rosemann, who manages New York City's Angelika Film Center in the trendy SoHo area, as well as two other city theaters. "With the fact that we should have all adults in the U.S. vaccinated by the end of May, it gives me great hope that we will have a summer blockbuster season."
President Biden said earlier this week he expects the U.S. to have sufficient vaccine supplies for all American adults by the end of May.
Still, theaters owners can't pack auditoriums, and many major theater markets remain closed, including in Hollywood studios' home base of Los Angeles.
Cineworld Group PLC's Regal Entertainment Group, though encouraged by reopenings, said it will hold off resuming operations at its more than 500 U.S. theaters until its leadership is convinced big-budget movies are sure to follow. "Once Los Angeles follows suit, we are confident in the studios holding their release dates for new movies, allowing us to reopen our theatres," the company said.
Both New York City and San Francisco are requiring theaters to cap attendance at 25%, and cinemas will mandate that moviegoers wear masks. And it remains unknown whether a much-anticipated pent-up demand for popcorn and big screens will manifest, after more than 500,000 U.S. deaths from Covid-19 and lingering public fear about gathering in indoor spaces.
Hollywood's biggest studio, Disney, has some confidence. On Friday, the studio is debuting "Raya and the Last Dragon" in more than 2,000 North American theaters. It has been one year since Disney opened a new movie in domestic theaters.
Disney is simultaneously making the movie available to subscribers of its streaming service Disney+ for an additional $30, which means some people are likely to watch the animated family film at home.
The last film Disney released exclusively to North American theaters was Pixar's "Onward." It hit more than 4,000 theaters on Mar. 6, 2020 but sputtered at the box office amid the worsening pandemic and theater closures.
John Krasinski, director of Paramount Pictures' highly-anticipated sequel "A Quiet Place Part II" announced on Twitter late Thursday that his film's release has moved up to Memorial Day weekend in May from its previously scheduled premiere in September.
Sony Pictures Entertainment is also waxing optimistic about May. This week the studio said it would release "Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway" in May rather than June. The studio chose to debut the movie in theaters sooner because of recent signs of recovery and encouraging demand for family films, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Family films have performed better than others in recent weeks. Universal Pictures' animated sequel "The Croods: A New Age" had grossed $52.4 million through last weekend, according to Comscore, after a relatively strong 14-week run in theaters. Last weekend, another family title, Warner Bros.' "Tom & Jerry," took the top spot domestically after generating $13.7 million in ticket revenue, Comscore also said.
Like all of the studio's 2021 releases, "Tom & Jerry" could also be viewed on streaming service HBO Max, which, like Warner Bros., is a unit run by AT&T Inc.'s WarnerMedia.
During the pandemic, Hollywood studios either focused on their streaming services, delayed releasing their most-coveted projects, or sold films to competitors for online distribution. As a result, the nation's largest theater chains, which also include AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. and Cinemark Holdings Inc., saw their chances to generate revenue dwindle. AMC managed to fend off bankruptcy several times during the past year.
As selected cities and states have loosened restrictions amid the pandemic's fluctuations, AMC and Cinemark reopened some theaters at reduced capacity. They also implemented social-distancing measures and heightened hygiene protocols.
Many theater owners expect Hollywood studios to begin releasing high-profile films again only after moviegoers demonstrate they are comfortable returning to multiplexes and the rest of California, principally Los Angeles, also reopens.
Franchise films like MGM Holdings Inc.'s latest installment of the James Bond franchise "No Time to Die" and Disney's Marvel spinoff "Black Widow" typically drive the majority of ticket sales. The two films, among many other big-budget titles, have been delayed repeatedly during the pandemic. Currently, "Black Widow" is slated for early May in the U.S. and Canada, while "No Time To Die" is scheduled for Oct. 8.
In an effort to return life to normal, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott took a more aggressive approach than many other states and companies when he lifted pandemic-related restrictions on businesses in Texas and cancelled the state's mask mandate.
The move brings a host of complications for businesses including movie-theater chains. Tim League, founder and executive chairman of Austin-based chain Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas Holdings LLC, joined a chorus of companies saying they would continue to follow public-health recommendations and maintain Covid-19 protective protocols. The chain also this week announced it had to permanently close two Texas locations as part of a chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.
"If you relax mask mandates now, what about the people there in the venue, that work there every day? They're at risk," Mr. League said.
While Mr. League says he ranks this week's news as some of the best he's heard in months, his Alamo theaters in New York City and San Francisco will remain closed this weekend, because the dine-in experience the chain offers demands added preparation before reopening.
"There are a lot of signs of encouragement and I'm confident that later on this year that we're going to return to some level of normalcy," he said. "But it all depends on peoples' comfort level of getting out of the home."
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
March 05, 2021 11:03 ET (16:03 GMT)Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.