On Monday, Texas governor Greg Abbott announced that movie theaters—along with malls, restaurants, and retailers—would be included in the state’s phase one plan to reopen businesses after the expiration of the shelter-in-place order this weekend. Public health experts have concerns about opening so soon—about both the health risks and the possibility of a second lockdown, amid worse conditions, sometime in the future. Many restaurateurs appear hesitant to risk employee and customer safety for the marginal returns of a dining room that’s 25 percent full, but there’ll certainly be plenty who feel comfortable doing so.
Movie theater chains across Texas, though, seem fairly unified in their decision-making: there’s no point in reopening early. The Plano-based Cinemark, Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse, and out-of-state chains like AMC and Regal (both of which operate a number of theaters across Texas) all responded to the news that they’re allowed to open as early as this weekend with a resounding, “Nah, not yet.”
There’s a good reason for that, even if theaters, like almost every business that isn’t a supermarket or home improvement store, are hurting amid the shutdown: there’s nothing to watch. Theater chains live and die by the studio release calendar, and studios haven’t released a movie since March 13, with the first new releases not scheduled to debut until mid-July. Theaters may be allowed to open, but they’d be relegated to picking from a slate of repertory releases and indie films that are being simultaneously released on video-on-demand services merely in hopes that they might be able to entice 25 percent of customers to risk contracting the virus in order to watch something they can easily see at home. And while Abbott may have issued an executive order allowing movie theaters to reopen, the ecosystem of the movie business isn’t built around what individual theaters choose to do.
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It’s not a coincidence that there’s nothing to screen, of course. After the start of coronavirus pandemic, studios reconfigured their plans on the fly, bumping films like the latest in the Fast & Furious and James Bond series to six months to a year down the line, then pushing summer titles like Marvel’s Black Widow and Warner’s Wonder Woman 1984 to later in the year, in the hope that conditions in late summer and fall will allow them to come closer to the original release date. Films that were already screening theatrically in late February and early March—like The Invisible Man, The Hunt, and Disney/Pixar’s Onward—got early releases on VOD platforms, and Trolls: World Tour, which had been scheduled for an April release (and which had seen a corresponding marketing push in February and March), became a $19.99 home rental, instead. Other titles initially planned for theatrical release also got moved to VOD—The Lovebirds and The King of Staten Island, both of which were scheduled as SXSW headliners, will instead see their premieres on Netflix and VOD, respectively.
It was only recently, and for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, there were new titles atop the weekly box office charts: IFC Films’ World War II drama Resistance and the indie distributor’s horror feature Swallow, tied for first place the weekend of April 17—with both films screening as a double feature at just one drive-in theater in Florida, grossing $2,490 each. (Both titles are also available for home rental via streaming services.) The next weekend, they’d been displaced by a new film—IFC’s True History of the Kelly Gang, an Australian western that played in a whopping five theaters around the United States.
For now, drive-ins might be the safest theaters in the social distancing age. Concession sales carry risks, but the screenings themselves (if they require a safe distance between cars) carry fewer risks than conventional theaters. New research suggests that crowded spaces without ventilation that rely on recirculated air and air conditioning may be among the most dangerous for spreading the disease—which describes not just places like New York City subway cars, but also movie theaters where patrons don’t watch an outdoor screen from within their own vehicles.
Those theaters make up a tiny fraction of screens, though. About 335 drive-ins still exist in the U.S., and they don’t all show first-run movies—and many have been closed as a result of shelter-in-place orders, or just out of concern for their ability to operate safely. Stars & Stripes Drive-In, which operates locations in New Braunfels and Lubbock, closed in mid-March to keep employees safe and to develop new guidelines for physical distancing. The Austin-based Blue Starlite, meanwhile, closed its Austin location to comply with the city’s shelter-in-place order, while it continues to screen classics like Indiana Jones and Dazed and Confused at its Round Rock outpost.
On Monday, IFC Midnight, the indie distributor’s horror arm, announced that it would be opening its latest release, The Wretched, in thirteen drive-ins around the country—including Amarillo’s Tascosa Drive-In and the Galaxy Drive-In in Ennis. That’s a far cry from the nearly five thousand screens that The Lion King opened in last summer when it set box-office records for the widest opening of all time, but it’s a sign of the current times.
The change in plans regarding every studio theatrical release was at least partly a financial one for studios—the weekend of March 13, with new releases still playing and most theaters still open, box office numbers dropped more than 60 percent. No studio wants their titles to flop, but if studios and distributors decide that they’d rather not be associated with any potential cinema-based outbreaks of COVID-19, they can also deny theaters that are opening early access to repertory titles, in order to send a wider message about reopening.
It’s striking that the widest theatrical release of April 2020 will be an indie horror film that will play on thirteen screens. Theaters would love to screen Black Widow this weekend, when it was originally scheduled to open, but they don’t have that power. The movie business is vast and complicated, and it requires everyone—from theater owners to audiences to the Hollywood studios that own the rights to the films—to want to return to normal. At the moment, regardless of what the law allows, that’s just not going to happen.