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Cinema Survival: How COVID-19 Changed The Movie Business, Possibly Forever

CENTERVILLE, Utah – It’s a phrase many of us may have been dying to hear for months: “New films are at the box office this weekend.”

Well, the new movies are back, and more theaters are reopening in Utah. But will they be able to survive? There is no question, COVID-19 changed the movie business.

During the pandemic, studios opted to skip the theaters altogether for some new releases, sending their films straight to streaming. And it’s a business model that may be catching on.

That left theaters like Utah’s Megaplex locations, looking to the past.

A Cinematic Gamble

2019 was an amazing year for cinema. The marquees boasted signs for films like “The Lion King” and “Joker.” A new chapter in the Star Wars saga and several new Marvel flicks, including “Avengers: Endgame,” topped box office charts.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2020. The movie that roared to the No. 1 spot at the box office: A Stephen Spielberg classic that first hit theaters way back in 1993: “Jurassic Park.”

“Jurassic Park” was the No. 1 movie for summer 2020.

“I think that shocked all of us,” said Blake Andersen, president of Megaplex Theatres.

But it was also an exclamation mark on just how bad a beating the movie theater industry has taken during this pandemic.

In June, Andersen gambled that reopening with nothing but re-releases would work. Thanks to Hollywood’s classics, he indeed kept the lights on, and a minimal staff paid.

Tough Times For Theaters

But he knew it was a short-term strategy, not a recipe for long-term survival.

“We are every bit of partners with Hollywood,” said Andersen. “They rely on us. We rely on them.”

Blake Andersen, president of Megaplex Theaters, talks to Matt Gephardt about reopening.

Hollywood hasn’t made it a particularly easy partnership for theater owners and operators this year. While they opened their vaults to classic films, they also bagged the scheduled theatrical releases of dozens of highly anticipated movies – the real moneymakers.

“Black Widow” got moved from May 1 to November 6, while “Wonder Woman 1984” will now hit theaters on October 2, instead of June 5. “Top Gun: Maverick” will no longer fly this coming Christmas — it is now grounded until July 2021. And distributors first shifted “A Quiet Place Part II” from March 20 to this coming Labor Day weekend, before moving it back again to next April.

The Labor Day weekend tends to be a benchmark in the movie industry in any given year. And especially this year, some analysts have been looking to the weekend as a bit of a test on what Hollywood would bring to the table, and whether it would be enough to keep the curtains from going down on the struggling movie houses.

The Surging Digital Scene

While a few new movies have popped up in recent weeks, this weekend brings the first big-budget film in months: Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.”

Live-action remake “Mulan” also opens this weekend, but Utahns will not see it on any theater marquees.

Instead, Disney has chosen to release it exclusively on its streaming service, Disney+. Subscribers will have to pay $29.99 to see it, on top of the $6.99 they already pay each month.

Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” will debut exclusively on Disney+ for $29.99.

“Mulan” could have been a juggernaut for movie theaters.

“Of course, we were disappointed when Disney made the decision,” said Andersen.

That film joins a handful of other movies that went straight to streaming this year thanks to the coronavirus. “Trolls World Tour” broke digital records and according to the Wall Street Journal, “charts a new path for Hollywood,” after the sequel made more in three weeks as an online release than the original did during five months in theaters.

The Third Act: Cinema Survival

So, do Hollywood studios need their theater partners anymore?

Andersen said he’s not worried.

“There’s a place for everything. One of the things I always say is that we all have kitchens, we all go to the grocery store, but we all love to go out and eat,” he remarked. “And, the cinemas provide that outing for us – that time to be with your spouse, your date, your family, to come out and experience it on the big screen.”

This past weekend brought another experiment from Hollywood: the simultaneous theatrical and streaming release of “Bill and Ted Face the Music.” And it may help underscore Andersen’s point, at least when it comes to Utah audiences.

“We are every bit of partners with Hollywood,” said Meplex President Blake Andersen. “They rely on us. We rely on them.”

Megaplex said its theaters in Thanksgiving Point and The District ranked No. 1 and No. 4 in the nation, respectively, for drawing in fans of the “Bill and Ted” franchise.

There is massive, pent-up demand for that big screen experience according to Patrick Hubley, executive director of the Utah Film Center.

“We like being around other people,” he said of movie audiences.

The Utah Film Center has been hosting screenings around the state on inflatable movie screens for outdoor cinemas. Hubley said they keep selling out, and their patrons are not just their usual crowds of indie-flick enthusiasts.

“We’re using this opportunity to highlight some movies and offer some films that people may not have otherwise know about or have the chance to see,” said Hubley. “We’re trying to do as much as we can to be active at this time.”

Patrick Hubley, director of the Utah Film Center, has hosted outdoor screenings of independent films.

Whether the film is a small budget independent or a major Hollywood blockbuster, Hubley expected moviegoers will see a more hybrid approach in the future: Some new releases will be streamed to their living rooms, some will hit the big screens and other releases will make it to both.

Regardless of platform, Hubley thought most theaters are going to be just fine, especially because watching a film in a theater is such a unique experience.

“When you’re watching a comedy, imagine a theater full of 250 people laughing at the same time versus you on your couch,” he said. “There are those moments where, you know, that are magnified and heightened because you’re with other people.”

A Cinema Side Hustle

One thing that is tough to replicate in the living room is the magic of real movie theater popcorn — not the microwaveable stuff.

An employee scoops popcorn into a bucket at a Megaplex location.

Some theaters have been selling their popcorn for takeout during the pandemic.

Megaplex Theatres said it has been such a successful side business for them, they plan to keep doing it when COVID-19 is behind us and the old normal, at least when it comes to film showings, becomes the new normal again.

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