Arts

TY BURR

‘Open or shut?’ isn’t open and shut

The New York Times
A masked staff member cleans up after a movie at the Palladium Cinema in San Antonio earlier this month.

All together now: Let’s all go to the moo-oo-vies, let’s all go to the moo-oo-vies —

Wait, maybe let’s not. At least not all together and maybe not now.

Has the tipping point finally arrived between watching a movie at home or seeing it in a theater? It depends on whom you ask and who’s asking the questions. In a poll conducted in mid-May by analytics firm Performance Research, 70 percent of respondents said that, as of this moment, they’d rather watch a first-run feature as a digital rental at home than go out and brave seeing it in a brick-and-mortar movie theater with a live and possibly infectious audience.

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That’s bad news for the studios and big exhibition chains like AMC, Regal, and National Amusements. Consequently, the industry is promoting a different survey, from EDO, an upstart digital research company backed by actor Edward Norton. In that survey, fully three-quarters of respondents say they’re ready to go back to theaters in July — as long as safety measures are in place.

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Specific measures have varying degrees of support. Ninety-one percent favor hand sanitizers and 86 percent back limited screenings to allow for better cleaning between shows. More than three-quarters of people polled want theater employees to get their temperatures checked before each shift, but only 60 percent are willing to have their own temperatures taken.

But, anyway, what’s the rush? Aren’t at-home audiences getting their fill of quarantine entertainment from TV series and new streaming platforms (Disney+, Apple TV+, HBO Max), and independent films bypassing theaters and going directly to video on demand?

They may well be, and that’s what terrifies the movie industry. The major studios have been sitting on their big titles for over eight weeks, pushing back summer and holiday release schedules and not daring to go straight to streaming for fear of incurring the wrath of the theater chains. NBCUniversal tested the waters by canceling a planned theatrical release for “Trolls World Tour” and successfully sending the movie to digital instead, only to see exhibitors announce a blanket boycott of the studio’s movies for the foreseeable future.

Smaller distributors such as Neon, Kino Lorber, and Focus Features (a subsidiary of NBCUniversal) have capitalized on that opening by happily making new releases available on cable systems and VOD platforms, or by arranging “virtual screenings” through art-house theaters with a portion of the ticket sales going to the house. That way, patrons of such much-loved local venues as the Coolidge Corner Theatre, the Brattle, the West Newton, and the Somerville can help those venues out over the long — and, for many independent theaters, dangerous — dry spell.

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What the studios and big theater chains fear is that it’s too late — that the horses have fled the multiplex. A streaming revolution that had already sucked away theatrical audiences for all but pre-tested franchise properties and genres was only made to revolve faster when everyone was forced indoors. The EDO survey says audiences may be willing to come back — if. Performance Research paints a darker future. Sixty percent of those polled say attending a big public event “will scare me for a long time.” That’s 13 points higher than when the same question was asked in March. And if theaters opening too soon contributes to a second wave of infections and deaths, the brick-and-mortar movie industry could be dealt a blow from which it may never recover.

Despite this grim picture — and also, perversely, because of it — movie theaters are pushing ahead with re-opening their doors, in keeping with the plans of their respective states. As of this writing, 200 US movie theaters have started screening films after two months of coronavirus shutdown. Tellingly, 150 are open-air drive-in theaters. In fact, plans for new drive-ins are moving forward in Michigan, on New York’s Long Island, and on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, a slice of yesteryear that has suddenly become relevant to today — and conceivably tomorrow.

Since the big studios are guarding their wares, what are these 200 venues showing? Mostly titles from indie distributor IFC Films: horror films “The Wretched” and “Disappearance at Clifton Hill,” the Beanie Feldstein comedy-drama “How to Build a Girl,” and the Australian crime western “True History of the Kelly Gang.” Total US grosses for the second week of May, according to tracking site Box Office Mojo? $142,000. The combined take for the week of March 6, the last before theaters started shutting down, was $135 million. You’d better believe the movie industry is scared it’s all going away.

So the studios and chains are moving forward, ready or not; they believe they can’t afford not to. Director Christopher Nolan (“Inception,” “Dunkirk”) — a longtime advocate of the theatrical experience — has been strenuously lobbying for his high-concept thriller, “Tenet,” to be the movie that brings back the crowds. Distributed by Warner Bros., it’s slated to open July 17. Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” is scheduled for July 24. “Unhinged,” a Russell Crowe road-rage thriller from new studio Solstice, pips them both by arriving on July 1.

The studios are betting audiences will be as desperate to get out of the house as the studios and theaters are to protect their investments and keep the product moving through the pipeline. The risk is ours; the upside is theirs, although if theaters in major cities like New York and Los Angeles haven’t opened by July, the studios stand to forgo more ticket sales than they may be willing to pass up. Up to 10 percent of a movie’s opening-weekend take can come from theaters in New York City alone, which is why the state chapter of the lobbying group National Association of Theater Owners is reportedly pressuring the Cuomo administration to reassign movie theaters from a “Phase 4” opening to the earlier “Phase 3,” along with restaurants and other food-service businesses.

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In Massachusetts, movie theaters qualify for Phase 3 as “arts and entertainment,” and both the major theater chains and the region’s independent theaters are nervously awaiting a go-ahead while arranging best practices. A spokesman for Dedham-based National Amusements says the company is in the final stages of planning extensive new safety protocols for its Showcase theaters and has worked with Governor Charlie Baker in setting up a Rapid Testing site in the parking lot of its Lowell theater.

For theaters that rely less on studio blockbusters and more on independent films and the audiences who support them, the COVID-19 era has been one of mixed emotions. Venues such as the the West Newton and the nonprofit Coolidge Corner and Brattle have seen larger-than-expected donations from loyal theatergoers, but they can’t survive on charity and “virtual screenings” forever. Katherine Tallman, executive director of the Coolidge, responded when contacted by e-mail, “We certainly are not rushing to open, and need to have a lot in place before we do. Much of that preparedness is dictated by public health and government regs, but it will take more than compliance to gain and keep the public’s trust (including steady state positive results from theaters that have opened). … We are not planning to open on Day One of Phase Three,” Tallman writes, “and not before we have a solid plan and more data.”

It’ll be one of the crueler cultural ironies of the moment if what remains the only real way to watch a film — in the dark, on a giant screen, as part of a crowd — suffers a killing blow from moviegoers’ understandable desire to remain alive. As the country’s big-box exhibition chains go full steam ahead with their planned July 1 opening of “Unhinged,” let’s hope that doesn’t describe the business plan.