‘It’s magic what we do.’ Movie theaters get starry-eyed once more.
By Nicole Sperling
It’s time to go back to the movies! Now!
That was the message sent Wednesday over and over and over again when all five of Hollywood’s major studios, their independent subsidiaries and stand-alone indie labels like A24 and Neon gathered in person at an AMC theater to show off their coming summer films and remind moviegoers who have become used to streaming their entertainment during the pandemic why they liked going to the movies in the first place.
“I’ll see you in the theaters,” actor and director John Krasinski said in a video message before a new trailer for “A Quiet Place 2.” (The movie opens May 28.) “Marvel movies are made to be seen on the big screen,” Marvel CEO Kevin Feige reminded audiences before showing footage of new films. And Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove, declared “Long live cinema” before a trailer for his forthcoming documentary “The Summer of Soul.” Vin Diesel, Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson, Maggie Q, Henry Golding and a handful of other stars also urged audiences to return to the plush seats, to remember their love for theater popcorn, to get back to the movies.
But it was the Terminator who got the room buzzing.
“You need the big screen,” Arnold Schwarzenegger told those assembled. “If you have the movie, and you don’t have the theaters, then you have nothing.”
He added, “We have seen over this last year, the pandemic year, that people watched movies on a little iPhone and iPad. And you have to put the glasses on to see what’s going on there. And they are missing the special effects and visual effects and all the great stuff that you usually see on the big screen.”
And then he led a chant of “We are back! We are back!”
If only it was so easy.
Like so many businesses, the movie theater industry has been ravaged by the economic effects of the pandemic. Theaters were starved of audiences when lockdowns went into effect, and studios delayed new releases or, in some cases, put them out on streaming services. Some chains have shut down, and others have declared bankruptcy. AMC Entertainment CEO Adam Aron said this month that the chain had been “within months or weeks of running out of cash five different times between April 2020 and January 2021.”
The Alamo Drafthouse theater chain furloughed its 3,100 employees during the pandemic, declared bankruptcy in December, shut down three theaters as part of its restructuring and halted a planned project in Orlando, Florida. According to Shelli Taylor, Alamo’s new CEO, some 114 independent theaters and chain locations have shut down since the pandemic began, including the beloved ArcLight theaters in Hollywood. Many were hopeful they would receive money from the recent federal relief packages, but the Small Business Administration’s troubles with the disbursement of money kept many from staying afloat.
The event Wednesday was meant to assure people that the troubles are over. That movies are coming back, with a vengeance, and moviegoing should soon return to normal.
“It’s magic, what we do,” said Tim League, Alamo’s founder, in an earlier phone interview. He acknowledged that his company got dangerously close to running out of money in December before filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. “We’re in the business of creating the best possible viewing experience — to get lost in an amazing story and have heightened emotions around it. It’s amazing when it’s done right, and we’re in the business of doing it right. I know that people are craving a return to any kind of out-of-home experience, being with people and having a sense of rejoining the community.”
League’s view might seem surprising considering the year movie theaters have had.
Cinemark, for instance, lost $208 million in the first quarter of 2021. Yet, “Today I am pleased to report that we are now actively on the road to recovery,” the company’s CEO, Mark Zoradi, said during an earnings call.
There are reasons for moviegoers to be excited, too. “Fast and Furious 9” debuts June 25. (It opens in China this weekend.) The musical “In the Heights,” adapted from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway show, will open June 11. Marvel’s “Black Widow” comes out July 9, and Disney’s “Jungle Cruise” will open July 30. (Both will also be immediately available on Disney+ for an additional price, a detail left out of Wednesday’s presentation.)
According to exhibition research firm National Research Group, as of Monday some 70% of moviegoers said they are comfortable returning to the theater. The box office for April hit $190 million, up 300% since February. That’s a welcome relief to South African director Neill Blomkamp, whose new horror film, “Demonic,” from indie outfit IFC, will debut only in theaters at the end of August.
“This brings me joy,” he said in a video message. “I want people to be terrified in a darkened theater.”
Some small independent theaters aren’t convinced the new wave of films will be enough to fill seats again.
“People don’t think about movies. It’s out of sight, out of mind,” said Lucie Mann, owner of Park Plaza Cinema on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. “It’s going to be a while before they are going to be excited again. I don’t think we will be able to recover unless we do something drastic, something wow, and I’m not sure what that is.”
Director J.J. Abrams, for one, sought to remind people Wednesday that going to the movies is different from watching TV. It’s a distinction that has become blurred during the long months spent at home.
“The relationship with the TV is you’re the parent, and the TV is the child,” he said. “It’s in your house. It’s smaller than you, you can turn it off, change it and control it.”
When you go to the movies, Abrams said, “You’re the child, and it’s the parent. You look up to it. It controls you, and it is taking you where it wants to take you. I think we all want to be kids again.”