After a long slumber, US cinemas awaken on pivotal weekend

More Americans will head back to the movies this weekend than any other since the pandemic shuttered cinemas in March.

Concessions stand workers stock the bins with popcorn and other treats as the theatre opens for some of the first showings at the AMC theatre in West Homestead, Pennsylvania [AP Photo/Keith Srakocic]
Concessions stand workers stock the bins with popcorn and other treats as the theatre opens for some of the first showings at the AMC theatre in West Homestead, Pennsylvania [AP Photo/Keith Srakocic]

With the previews about to start, a trickle of masked moviegoers made their way into one of the first US screenings of Tenet at the Bow Tie Majestic 6 in downtown Stamford, Connecticut. They took their seats on Tuesday night, eyeing the empty seats between each other and a little giddy at being back at the movies for the first time in many months.

Philip Scarante and Andy Flores, both 25, went every Tuesday religiously before theatres closed in March. “It’s just our thing,” Scarante said. Seeing Nolan’s latest mind-bending spectacle later on a smaller screen held no appeal. They sat down in centre seats, up close.

“Everyone seems to have a mask on,” Scarante noted, looking around in the sparsely populated theatre. “I didn’t expect that many people to show up.”

More Americans will make their way back to the movies this weekend than any other since the pandemic shuttered theatres in March. After a few weeks of catalogue films and minor releases, the $200m Tenet is the first must-see main event of the pandemic, a mega-movie litmus test for how ready US moviegoers are to return to cinemas.

At the same time, another $200m movie, the Walt Disney Co’s live-action Mulan remake is debuting not in cinemas, as it originally intended to back in March, but on the streaming service Disney. In an innovative, untested release, Mulan will be available to Disney+ subscribers on Friday at $30.

More Americans will make their way back to the movies this weekend than any other since the pandemic shuttered theatres in March [Keith Srakocic/AP Photo] 

Each movie could chart a new way forward for Hollywood in the COVID-19 era, and potentially beyond. Tenet, which grossed a hefty $53.6m in 41 international territories last weekend, could prove that blockbuster moviegoing can be resuscitated with half-capacity cinemas and safety protocols – or that people are not ready to sit in the dark with strangers. Mulan could open up a new premium on-demand window to the largest film franchises, or prove that big-time box office – Mulan had been projected to make about $750m in theatres – cannot be replicated at home.

Labor Day weekend, usually among the sleepiest days of the year in theatres, has turned into a dramatic showdown with the fate of the industry possibly at stake, as two high-priced experiments test the possibilities of a new reality.

“The world we’re in right now, the concept of releasing the film absolutely everywhere for everyone to go and see on the same weekend, clearly that’s absolutely not an option for the foreseeable future,” said Nolan in an interview. “So if that pushes the industry into different ways of thinking and some of them being older distribution models, that hopefully can work.”

Warner Bros is rolling out Tenet where they can. After debuting in Europe, Canada and Korea last weekend, Tenet on Thursday lands in 75 percent of open US theatres, along with cinemas in China on Friday. Some states, like New York, have kept theatres closed, though more are coming online just in time for Tenet. New Jersey and some California cinemas are set to reopen Friday.

The strong international launch of Tenet proved that many people are eager to come back. The US, though, may be a different story. Though COVID-19 cases and deaths are declining, they are still far more elevated than in most parts of the world. Cases are approaching six million in the US, with deaths surpassing 180,000. Epidemiologists, most more concerned about school reopenings, remain cautious about any large indoor gatherings.

Walt Disney Co’s live-action Mulan remake is debuting not in cinemas, as originally intended, but on the streaming service Disney [File: Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP Photo]

Meanwhile, exhibitors are clinging to survival. New products, they have said, are essential to their making it through the pandemic. Connecticut’s Bow Tie Cinemas opened earlier this summer and then closed when major releases were again postponed. At the Tenet preview screening on Tuesday, married couple Trudy and Phil Davies, with a tub of popcorn between them, said they came for “the chance to do something different” but also to contribute to the recovery.

“We came here to help things get back up and running,” Trudy said. “Not just for the movie businesses, for everybody. As long as it’s done in a sensible way.”

As difficult as the circumstances are, Warner Bros. also sees opportunity. Tenet has virtually no competition in cinemas and will play continuously for not just weeks but months. It has the big screen all to itself. At one Boston AMC, Tenet is playing 86 times from Friday to Sunday.

Disney has released other, smaller films into theatres such as Fox’s The New Mutants and Fox Searchlight’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, but it has thus far either postponed or sent to streaming its bigger movies. Like Hamilton, Mulan will be used to boost the 60 million-plus subscriber base of Disney. Announcing the release plan last month, Disney Chief Executive Bob Chapek called it a “one-off”.

“We don’t see this as a new window, but it’s an opportunity to learn,” Disney’s distribution chief Cathleen Taff said. “The one thing about this pandemic we’ve learned is we can’t be set in our ways. We have to be fluid.”

After a few weeks of catalogue films and minor releases, cinemas are preparing for the first must-see movie of the pandemic [AP Photo/Keith Srakocic] 

The move did not please theatre owners, but Wall Street has endorsed it. Benjamin Swinburne, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, said in a note to investors that he sees premium on-demand “as long-term structurally beneficial to film studios, and likely less cannibalistic to moviegoing than feared”.

Which way things break is anyone’s guess, but the releases of Tenet and Mulan may go a long way to redefining a movie business in the midst of technological and social upheaval. The movies lying in wait – Wonder Woman 1984, Marvel’s Black Widow, Pixar’s Soul – will be watching.

Settling in for Tenet, Jose Alvarez, a 20-year-old from nearby White Plains, New York, was thrilled to be back at the movies.

“Because movies are amazing. We’re saving a lot of money because now we’re at home,” said Alvarez with his mask pulled below his chin. “Not much to do there. Staying inside is not good for the health.”

Source: AP

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