How Movie Theater Owners Are 'Learning to Live With COVID': A Report From CinemaCon

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LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – AUGUST 24: Passholders are seen at CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, at Caesars Palace, on August 24, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images for CinemaCon)

How Movie Theater Owners Are ‘Learning to Live With COVID’: A Report From CinemaCon

Even with scaled-down festivities and the shadow of the Delta variant looming, the trade show’s upbeat messaging shines through

The spirit of CinemaCon 2021 could be best summed up when its managing director this week took the stage at the Caesar’s Palace Colosseum wearing a “Son of the Pink Panther” T-shirt and a “Jurassic Park III” cap, memorabilia from movie theater trade shows from decades past.

The optimism that Mitch Neuhauser brings to that stage every year wasn’t dented — not even with a pandemic still sweeping through the world. “Let us remember those we have lost, but let this week we spend together also be the point where we start to turn to a brighter future,” Neuhauser said. “Because I truly believe that however long it takes, we as an industry will come back stronger than before because people truly value going to the movies.”

While the mood offstage was much more cautious — especially with the Delta variant spiking infections and hospitalizations nationwide — theater execs told TheWrap said they felt that movie theaters would be able to return to the peak box office of 2018-19, even if it takes a bit longer than they hoped. It’s the kind of optimism that has pushed exhibitors and studios alike through the most turbulent period in industry history.

“I don’t think its stubborn optimism; it’s data-driven optimism,” Tim Handren, the CEO of the nine-theater Texas chain Santikos Theaters, told TheWrap. “We know there’s going to be ups and downs, but still trending upward because we’ve seen the data. With Delta, we’ve seen our turnout in August take a big hit, but back in July we saw it reach 70% of pre-pandemic levels and that was just with two big films.”

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When the dates for CinemaCon were set in late August instead of its usual spring slot, the National Association of Theater Owners hoped to kick off a fall and holiday season that would significantly boost the reopening efforts for cinemas, featuring the usual parade of movie stars and directors promoting their films.

And while the never-before-seen sneak peeks were still plentiful, there’s no doubt that this is a scaled-back convention. The ballrooms, while still filled with attendees, were missing theater executives from Asia and other overseas regions because of COVID travel restrictions. The convention space is filled with posters for coming attractions, but the bars and escalators are devoid of the sponsor ads usually plastered across them.

Aside from the father/son filmmaker duo of Ivan and Jason Reitman, whom Sony brought on stage to introduce a screening of Jason Reitman’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” the usual star appearances were limited to pre-taped reels. Disney went a step further and skipped any kind of presentation, instead filling its slot with an advance screening of next month’s Marvel release “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” — the rare Disney tentpole this year that will run exclusively in theaters, without a simultaneous Disney+ release.

But what every studio had in common was a repeated promise to exhibitors that regardless of the headlines brewing in Hollywood about day-and-date releases, they are committed to theaters for the long haul. Some showed that with an emotional appeal, like Universal’s preview reel featuring movie stars alongside cinema workers and managers.

MGM’s Pamela Abdy and Michael De Luca won hearty applause by confirming that the long-delayed James Bond film “No Time to Die” was locked in for its Oct. 8 release date. In doing so, MGM has ensured that the October release slate will remain stacked, from blockbusters like Sony’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” and Universal’s “Halloween Kills” to indie titles like Focus Features’ “Last Night in Soho.”

But before then, theaters have to get through a September slate that will heavily lean on “Shang-Chi” — especially after the lackluster ticket sales for July’s Marvel release, “Black Widow” (which topped out just over $180 million domestically). Some modest support will come from Universal’s Broadway musical adaptation “Dear Evan Hansen,” but it will be the first theatrically exclusive Marvel film in over two years that theaters will be looking at closely.

“‘Shang-Chi’ just shows how weird this year is. Since when has a blockbuster that big ever come out on Labor Day weekend?” one marketing executive for a regional chain told TheWrap. “But we’ve got to do everything we can to help make that film a hit after what happened with ‘Black Widow.’ I don’t think it’s going to have an explosive weekend, but if it can leg out and bring people back to theaters and help them realize they are safe at our businesses, it’s going to help us in the long run.”

It’s that struggle to convince casual moviegoers that has defined the post-shutdown era so far. At a panel on Monday, Cinepolis CEO Alejandro Ramirez Magana discussed how both his chain and the industry as a whole has been “learning to live with COVID” since reopening. While much of Australia and Southeast Asia have closed their theaters due to Delta-fueled spikes, the rest of the world’s theater owners have been forced to think on their feet, adapting to constantly changing regulations around masks and vaccine mandates that vary by territory and sometimes by city.

“Once we navigate through this wave of the Delta variant and get more people vaccinated, we will get closer to a period where infections are much more contained and the virus is more endemic like the flu,” Magana said. “I think as we get closer, more people will come back, particularly more infrequent moviegoers, and we as theaters can help that along by continuing to make that first trip back to theaters be as comfortable as possible.”

There are few theater owners who know more about living with COVID-19 than Tim Handren. As a cinema owner in Texas, his locations were among the first to reopen in the U.S. last year, and the protocols the chain set up influenced the CinemaSafe guidelines that have become an industry standard worldwide. He’s had to spend extra time figuring out how to adapt those protocols to changing times, as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has prevented local governments from enforcing any mask or vaccine mandates.

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“The vaccine mandate isn’t a black-and-white thing. I’ve had some employees have religious reasons not to do it, and I’ve had immuno-compromised employees who are really scared about the virus, and I have to take in all their input,” he said. “So while we didn’t do a vaccine mandate, we offered $75 to anyone who got vaccinated, and 70% of our workforce took us up on it.”

That attention to employee and customer safety has paid off, as Santikos has received positive response from moviegoers on its protocols and consistent turnout from frequent ticket buyers.

Chris Johnson, CEO of Classic Cinemas, said he has seen similar results from his locations in Illinois, even with family audiences that have produced lower than expected turnout nationwide. “We hold a family screening of a film that released a year or two ago every Wednesday morning since we reopened, and we’ve made $27,000 from just that one screening once a week,” Johnson said. “We know that right now it’s not a demand problem. It’s a supply problem because not everyone is interested in seeing ‘The Suicide Squad.’ But people do want to come back to theaters and get on with their lives in a safe way.”

Despite the likelihood that COVID-19 will still be a major problem heading into the winter, Johnson said he was most optimistic after the joint presentation by Universal and Focus Features. Of the 13 films presented by the major studio and its sister indie, only four were sequels. The others were original films, ranging from the Lupita Nyong’o action film “The 355” to Robert Eggers’ Viking revenge epic “The Northman.”

Beatrice Verhoeven contributed to this report.

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