What’s going on right now at the box office and with theaters goes far beyond the muted $30M domestic results of Tenet.
This isn’t a death knell piece for exhibition, nor is this more rhetoric to freak studios out and have them delay even more movies. Studios, you’ve created enough damage in that space.
It’s more a Come-to-Jesus moment: Studios and exhibitors, really, you’ve got to work together.
I’ve heard you tried to work for months together during the pandemic, before Tenet‘s anticipated July opening. But there was a lot of division, not just between yourselves, but also among rival studios.
If there was ever a divide between exhibition and distribution, it’s now. Some says it’s a systemic failure.
As we write this, word is bubbling that San Diego County could roll back to being a purple zone, potentially impacting and shutting down theaters (Oh, but, don’t worry, Kohl’s will remain open). Because of Wonder Woman 1984, Candyman, Greenland, and Black Widow‘s move to deeper in the calendar, some exhibitors may have to shut down Monday through Wednesday, given the lack of product over the next month. The next major studio releases are 20th Century Studios/Disney’s Death on the Nile and Sony’s Lord & Miller’s Connected. But really, the length of the desert for exhibition will last until Nov. 20, when MGM’s 007 feature No Time to Die finally opens. Already, for its theaters in smaller markets, No. 2 exhibitor Regal is planning to cut their showtimes to stay financially sound.
“This is the worst thing that could have happened,” says one big circuit insider about 2020’s melting wide theatrical release schedule, “having Tenet open and nothing behind it. It’s the worst possible outcome and we needed that Mulan one-two punch behind it.”
“You want consumer confidence, because this is never going to fix itself,” says one chain buyer who preferred to remain off the record. “We, as exhibitors, need to stay open.”
So how the hell do we get out of this?
The overall message on theater safety, aka the National Association of Theatre Owners’ CinemaSafe program, needs to be louder — like, a lot LOUDER, and bears repetition.
The reopening of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, whenever that is, alone won’t solve our box office problems overnight.
“This isn’t as simple as Tenet at the box office. It’s a much bigger psychological issue,” says one rival studio boss about moviegoing during the pandemic. “There’s a lot of mixed stimuli that it’s safe and not safe right now, and that’s throughout all industries. It’s about conditioned behavior, and for six months we’ve been told you can be hurt if you’re inside a venue, away from home.”
The messaging that movie theaters are safer than restaurants and bars, and that there are no known COVID-19 cases connected with cinemas, hasn’t registered in the public’s mindset, and certainly not with New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, who continues to hold up multiplex reopenings over AC ventilation concerns.
This despite the fact that gyms, restaurants, and casinos (casinos!) are open in the Empire State. I’m told this week NY health officials will be surveying theaters in the state, which is teetering at a very good 1% infection rate. Despite being among the first establishments before the mid-March shutdown to create social distancing, extra cleaning, and touchless parameters for their consumer base, movie theaters have been vilified. I understand there’s a lot of people behind the scenes and public-facing, like Tribeca Enterprises CEO Jane Rosenthal, who is the industry’s ally when communicating with Cuomo when it comes to exhibition reopening. She recently developed the governor’s ‘Mask Up America’ PSA campaign, starring Paul Rudd, Billy Crystal, and Robert De Niro, which clocked 22M views nationwide. I hear that filmmakers and stars have lobbied Cuomo behind the scenes, and we have yet to see the Governor concede.
Of those polled on whether they’d return to theaters right now and feel comfortable about it, there are three groups: eager explorers (84%), social skeptics (35%), and the health holdouts, per NRG. It’s the older, liberal-leaning, typically coastal city living (Christopher Nolan’s audience) social skeptics who require the most immediate nudging. However, the demo wants to hear that’s it safe to go back, not from an exhibition boss or a Kardashian, but rather from health officials themselves.
Also in the same NRG COVID-19 moviegoer study from Monday, 51% of moviegoers are comfortable or somewhat comfortable about returning to the theater during the pandemic — a number that has spiked from the 20%-30% in recent weeks, I’m told by studio sources. However, 49% are still uncomfortable. Further complicating matters, and perhaps another reason why there wasn’t a rush on the box office for Tenet as US theaters in San Diego and New Jersey opened at the last minute over its opening weekend, only 41% of all potential moviegoers were aware recently that their local theater is actually open.
Of the many I’ve spoken with, they assert emphatically that it’s not the studio’s job, nor is it filmmakers or stars’ responsibility, to send the message that movie theaters are safe. That’s exhibition’s job. I call bulls*** on that. But more on that in the minute.
A number of sources I’ve spoken with blame the National Association of Theatre Owners for being sluggish with the CinemaSafe campaign, that it was late-breaking. That said, the exhibition org isn’t a marketing organization, and they’ve had their hands full during the pandemic, battling theatrical window issues (Trolls World Tour), and running interference with DC lawmakers trying to get shuttered exhibitors’ financial assistance. Warner Bros., I hear, gets extra props for their assistance behind-the-scenes in getting the CinemaSafe program realized. As such, we need more studios involved.
Essentially the message of CinemaSafe needs to go nationwide in TV spots. It can’t be solely preached to the choir on screens at theaters. Perhaps a medical expert needs to be included in such ads. I understand that Dr. Anthony Fauci even OK’ed NATO’s suggested safety protocols. The general public needs to know this. Perhaps the TV spots for movie trailers need to be tagged at the end, emphasizing CinemaSafe. If Disney+ and Netflix can run TV ads for their brand recognition for its streaming service, the motion picture industry has to step up and work on a greater PSA if they want anyone to go back to the movies.
What about a NATO-ordered medical study showing that it’s actually safe to be in a movie theater, socially distanced, wearing a mask, and with strangers? From what we know thus far, no one has contracted COVID-19 from a movie theater. Such a study could go a long way in convincing stars that it’s OK to promote a movie, or even support moviegoing.
But who’s going to pay for this?
Exhibition is financially strapped, and has been closed for months. This is why they require studios’ help. Majors, you don’t have to pitch or administrate the message that it’s safe to return to theaters. But you can help pay the advertising bill. Hey, studios, you financially assisted the digital and 3D exhibition revolution, so why can’t you help fund the national PR campaign to return to movie theaters?
One theater chain boss told me yesterday that they’re going to shoot video testimonials of consumers leaving the theater and post those on social in order to generate positive word-of-mouth. Seriously, bravo on that. Loyalty programs should be messaging dormant lists ASAP on cinema safety, even when theaters are closed in specific markets. AMC has already achieved record remarks in cleanliness from its clientele over the last three weeks.
Studio marketing executives have commended Nordstrom on how they’ve used social media influencers to draw-in anxious shoppers; that it’s the same type of tact that should be implemented in this scenario with movie theaters. Perhaps that’s key for pulling in the 52% of teens and 51% of women under 25 who aren’t comfortable or going to a theater in recent NRG stats.
And, big circuit exhibition, if distributors wind up saving your hides, you need to bend as well. Don’t fret, they still believe that the big screen is the conduit for subsequent window revenue. But if they have abandoned you with marquee releases for the fall, perhaps it’s time to experiment with theatrical-PVOD day and date windows with an independent distributor and see what happens. We are in a pandemic, and nothing is definitive about the business until we come out. Voltage’s YA teen sequel After We Collided, distributed by Open Road/Briarcliff, is hitting theaters and PVOD on Oct. 23, but the big three circuits are turning their noses up at it despite the pic clearing a half million in Canada over the weekend.
Says Voltage Pictures President and COO Jonathan Deckter, “There’s no doubt that we need exhibition to not only survive, but thrive, in order to keep the independent film ecosystem whole. What we don’t understand is why the major exhibitors in the US continue to handcuff themselves during this pandemic and are not running day and date films. As an example, our domestic partners on After We Collided (which is the ONLY English language film that is doing pre-pandemic level business everywhere it’s been released overseas, $23m through its second week in 20 markets) Open Road/ Briarcliff are not able to book certain chains because we are also releasing digitally the same day, so that the loyal After fans have access to the film the same day. It seems like exhibition would rather have no new content, since the studios keep pushing their films, than temporarily adjust to the times.”
There was too much pressure on Tenet to be looked at as the feature that would save the domestic box office, and some say it was still too early for movie theaters to reopen with no vaccine yet in sight.
It’s just going to take patience and time before moviegoers are fully comfortable about coming back.
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