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Will Movie Theaters Survive COVID-19?

In the COVID-19 era is anyone going to the movies when they reopen?

Movie Theater

If you polled 100 members of the CE press who specifically cover the movie industry and home theater segment what would be the #1 story of 2020, we are 100% certain that the demise of movie theaters would not have been on anyone’s list. 

But here we are. 

It’s October 19th, and most of the movie theaters in N. America are dark; or operating with almost no customers. 

When theaters went dark here in New Jersey in March, I had a weird feeling that the shutdown could potentially change how consumers watch movies forever. Streaming offers a degree of choice that theaters can never offer and who wants to check their iPhone every five minutes to make sure the kids have not burned down the house while you enjoy a movie? 

I do. But I digress…

Social media is rife with ridiculous conspiracy theories that Disney and Netflix are secretly orchestrating the closures because they are creating a dramatic surge in the number of consumers paying both services monthly to watch Schitt’s Creek, or the forthcoming new season of The Mandalorian.

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The same shows they would have watched even with the theaters wide open and running at full capacity during the summer and into the holiday season. 

There is no question that the situation has forced Disney to pivot and focus more on the streaming side of the business – which makes perfect sense considering the scale of their library and the popularity of  the Marvel MCU, Star Wars, and almost a century of classic films and cartoons. 

The decision to release Mulan through Disney+ for an additional $30 met with mixed results but until Disney discloses the global VOD box office figures in November, the industry is in the dark. 

Disney just let go 28,000 employees from their theme park business. It has not been a great year at Disney. 

Empty AMC Movie Theater Parking Lot in NJ

On the theater side, things are bleak for AMC and Regal in N. America. Regal has been forced to shutter its theaters globally for second time, and AMC is desperate for a bailout from someone or it’s going to be very ugly in January. 

Independent theaters are selling wine out the front door to survive or the naming rights to seats as a source of revenue. None of this was enough to keep a very successful independent theater chain in Asbury Park (where we watched films every month) from closing its doors for good in October. 

I will not pass judgement on anyone who is afraid to venture into a theater right now (especially as someone who already had COVID-19 in March), but I’ve been to 4 movies since theaters reopened here on the Jersey Shore. 

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The experience was weird.

Empty Seats in AMC Movie Theater in NJ

Imagine being the only person in the entire theater (as in the entire complex) and watching Tenet by yourself. 

AMC requires that you wear a mask during the entire film; even when you are the only person in the entire building and the closest human being is the poor teenager who scans your digital ticket from behind a plexiglass shield. 

I did enjoy the very low budget The Last Shift which I watched on a rainy Saturday night after the Sabbath concluded in the middle of the Jewish High Holidays. 

No people in AMC Movie Theater in NJ

Taking my 7 year-old to the 40th anniversary showing of The Empire Strikes Back was exhilarating because she loved it so much – but also depressing because we were the only people in the theater. 

Against my better judgement, I ventured out to watch Jim Caviezel in the Infidel; the only film that had any people sitting in the audience at all – there were 3 guys sitting in the next section who left after about 45 minutes. 

With all of the major releases pushed off into 2021; Dune and No Time To Die are two of the latest films to see their release dates changed again, there is almost nothing to see and that clearly motivated Regal to shutter until further notice. 

AMC Movie Theater Entrance in NJ during COVID-19

The Academy Awards for 2021 have been pushed off until April 25th so that Tenet has some additional competition from possible contenders like Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy which will be released on Netflix around Thanksgiving. 

Regardless of how quickly a vaccine is available on a global scale, there is very little chance that audiences will be returning to their local movie theaters in 2020 delivering the kind of box office revenue that can sustain the three largest chains. 

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The biggest winner in all of this may be the folks at LG, Samsung, Sony, and Sonos – because the home theater industry will never have a better opportunity to sell more product as consumers hunker down at home to binge watch television and new film releases.

But with the economy still struggling to recover, are consumers really planning on ditching their local movie theaters for good and investing in a high-end home theater experience?

According to Brian Gluck, CEO of ProjectorScreen.com, it may be happening much faster than you might think.

“While we have experienced a decline in commercial business, the residential/consumer market for home theater and projection has surged since COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, including the closure of movie theaters. Even when movie theaters open back up, I suspect there will be a lot of trepidation about returning to an enclosed movie theater,” remarked Gluck when asked how the pandemic had impacted his NJ-based home theater business.

“We have never seen so much demand for outdoor projection equipment as we did this past summer. There is also a rapidly growing market for Ultra Short Throw Projectors, commonly referred to now as “Laser TVs”, which when paired with a specialized ambient light rejecting screen really allow for you to bring projection out of the basement and into your living room as a true alternative to a traditional TV set.”

“There have been some problems in regard to the pandemic as it applies to the supply chain. Consumers have been forced to wait longer for certain products due to the surge in demand for premium home theater components. Products that are manufactured overseas have taken longer to be delivered but our premium made-to-order projection screens are all manufactured domestically, so we’ve been able to fulfill orders faster,” according to Gluck.

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Who really knows when restrictions will ease up and when people will truly feel safe returning to places like movie theaters. With people spending so much more time at home, enhancing their home theater or multimedia room experience has certainly become a priority for many.

COVID-19 has taken a huge toll on the global economy; and possibly put the final nails in the coffin of the movie theater industry as well. 

Let’s pray that doesn’t prove to be the case. 

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