Movie theaters hoped to be back in business in a big way this fall, attracting stir-crazy audiences with a slate of blockbusters that included “Tenet,” “Mulan,” and “No Time to Die.” For an industry that had been brought to its knees by the coronavirus pandemic, with closures that left them without revenues for much of the year, nothing was more important than a grand and successful reopening.
Unfortunately, more than a month after “Tenet” debuted to disappointing box office results, the exhibition sector is in an even more dire situation. “Mulan” opted to debut as a premium on-demand offering via Disney Plus. “No Time to Die” pushed its premiere back into April, and several other movies have postponed their releases into next spring or summer when, studios hope, a vaccine will be widely available. On Saturday, Cineworld, one of the world’s largest exhibitors, announced that it was considering closing its theaters down, citing the lack of major releases available to screen. Other exhibitors may follow suit.
John Fithian, head of the National Association of Theatre Owners, believes that the main stumbling block preventing movie theaters from rebounding is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to keep cinemas closed indefinitely. That’s robbing studios of a major market to show their films, Fithian argues, which may jeopardize the release of upcoming blockbusters such as “Wonder Woman 1984” and Pixar’s “Soul.” In an interview with Variety, the theater business’s top lobbyist urged studios to keep releasing movies during the pandemic and warned that the industry faces financial ruin without government assistance.
“No Time to Die” has delayed its release until 2021. What impact will that have on the exhibition industry?
The Bond franchise is very important to exhibition, so we were disappointed with the move. The failure of Gov. Cuomo to allow movie theaters to reopen anywhere in his state was a principal, if not exclusive, cause of the Bond move. If New York remains closed to theater operations, other movies scheduled for 2020 will move as well. And I just don’t understand it. I know the governor has done a fantastic job combatting the virus. I know he’s got some increases of infections in some limited areas in the state. But restaurants in New York are open, gyms are open, churches are open, indoor dining is being offered. Our recommendation, our urgent plea, is for Gov. Cuomo to allow movie theaters to reopen in the portions of the state that aren’t having spikes in the virus. There are now only two states that are entirely closed to moviegoing — New York and New Mexico.
Why is New York so critical?
New York is a major source of box office, but it also plays a hugely important role in shaping culture. Many important analysts are in New York. Many important journalists are in New York. Many important film critics are in New York. With New York closed, those important opinion-makers don’t have the opportunity to go to the cinema.
We’re trying everything we can to go over our health protocols with Gov. Cuomo, which his team has signaled their support for. We’ve asked local officials to weigh in with Gov. Cuomo and urge him to open where it’s safe to do so. We’ve held four press conferences across the state and we’ve had all kinds of people in the movie industry call him to press our case. Now we’re just waiting for Gov. Cuomo’s decision. It’s not a local industry. The movie business is a national and international industry. If movies aren’t getting released because New York isn’t open, that affects the movie industry and its employees all over the world.
Has Gov. Cuomo provided any timeframe for theaters to reopen?
No. None at all. It is mind-boggling.
Would “No Time to Die” move its release date back to November if New York opens theaters?
I don’t know about any specific plan to move Bond back to Nov. 20 if that happens. But to keep the rest of the movies on the slate, it’s essential that New York make an announcement very soon. We also believe that distributors with movies on hold or with release dates in 2021 would reconsider and debut their movies in 2020 if New York opened. It would have a huge impact.
Is that a hypothetical or have studios told you they would consider releasing their delayed movies in 2020 if New York opened cinemas?
Fithian: Several studios have entertained the possibility of moving movies back into 2020 if a few factors were addressed, but number one on that list is New York coming back online.
Your organization sued New Jersey when it wouldn’t give a date for movie theaters to reopen. Will you pursue legal action against New York?
It’s possible, but that’s a complicated political football in New York. If we thought it would improve things, we would do it.
Movie theaters in most U.S. states have been back in business since late August. Have there been any cases of COVID-19 linked to a movie theater?
Not one. Movie theaters aren’t just open in the U.S. They have been open around the world and doing a lot of business for several months. We asked our epidemiologists to go review all of the global medical literature on where coronavirus outbreaks have occurred. It turns out that not a single reported outbreak of the virus was linked to movie theaters. There are reported cases that are linked to churches, restaurants and other places where people gather, which are open, but not movie theaters. We haven’t had one yet, and we shared that fact with Gov. Cuomo’s people.
You released a letter last week that was signed by Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Greta Gerwig, and other top directors urging Congress to help movie theaters. What does the federal government need to do?
We need additional loan or grant programs that can provide a bridge to get us to the other side of this thing. What do I mean by a bridge? We had a record-breaking year in 2019 with $42 billion in the global box office and our second-best year domestically. In March we had to shut down everywhere and it’s been a long haul since then. About 93% of the movie theater companies experienced losses of more than 75% in the second quarter. That didn’t improve by much in the third quarter. We did a survey and if that status quo continues, 69% of our small and mid-sized movie theater companies will be forced to file for bankruptcy or close permanently. We can’t allow that to happen.
There are several different programs on the table that Congress could enact. We want some form of liquidity or grants. The original CARES Act, which was approved months ago, has unspent money and unallocated funds that are sitting there. We’d like them to allocate those funds to the hardest hit industries — that includes movie theaters. The second proposal is the RESTART Act, which is a combination of new loan and grant programs. And the third is to take the very popular payment protection program that granted loans to small businesses and expand that and make it eligible to more movie theater companies.
Will a deal get done before the presidential election?
I don’t know what the odds are. If it doesn’t, we’d like something to be enacted in the lame duck session of Congress. We know from talking to our members that they need help and they need it now. We can’t wait until January. If there is no more assistance from Congress and the business doesn’t improve in the marketplace, there are going to be a lot of bankrupt companies.
In retrospect, did movie theaters reopen too soon?
I won’t criticize anybody for reopening too early because the whole point was to get people back into movie theaters safely. We spent a lot of time developing new protocols, which got rave reviews from a lot of epidemiologists. Part of the challenge is we don’t have enough big movies in the marketplace. Warner Bros. and Christopher Nolan gave us “Tenet,” which was really helpful, but we’ll only have a few relatively small titles in October. We’d love to get more movies back on the schedule.
Some industry observers argue that Warner Bros. should have released “Tenet” on HBO Max as a way to drive subscriptions. Given its disappointing box office results, did the studio make a mistake?
Well you’re talking about the domestic results being disappointing, but the international grosses on “Tenet” are decent. They are $200 million-plus. That shows that people do go back to the movies when their countries have the virus under control. Also, “Tenet” is not done yet. It’s a marathon and when additional markets open, those domestic numbers will improve.
I really don’t get the big budget movie going straight to a streaming service business model. I don’t exactly know how Disney made out with “Mulan,” but I don’t think it was a gigantic success financially. In a premium VOD model, you have to hope that people will pay $20 to watch a movie at home. Maybe that will work during a pandemic, but you won’t have the same kind of profits that you get when you have a standard theatrical release.
What message do you have for studios who are hesitant to release their movies until there is a widely available vaccine?
If we don’t have any movies until we’re fully vaccinated as a world, a lot of the theater companies are going to be gone and the theaters themselves won’t be there. So, your infrastructure to play your movies and get grosses will not be the same. This idea of waiting out the pandemic to make your movies more profitable doesn’t make sense to me. There won’t be as much of an industry left to play your movies in if you do that.
It’s not just about the profitability of one individual film. I know that sounds like anathema in Hollywood for me to say that, but it’s about the viability of the theatrical release model. Studios need to release their movies now, because delaying their movies for a month or two or three or five will put them in a worse place. So, go for it. Release your movies. Make some money. We need you.