Mar 13, 2020
Movie Theaters Brace for Empty Seats and Fearful Customers
(Bloomberg) -- Russell Vannorsdel is thinking about how he can help people vanquish their coronavirus dread, if only for a few hours.
Vannorsdel helps run R.L. Fridley Theatres Inc., a locally owned chain in Iowa. He oversees just under 100 screens and worries tales of superheroes and fantasy worlds won’t be enough to distract patrons from the real world’s troubles.
Though the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t hit Iowa in a major way, Fridley’s is bracing for the worst. Studios are holding back releases of big new films because they fear audiences won’t turn out for them in the current climate of fear. New York, California and Washington have restricted public gatherings, forcing some theaters to limit ticket sales.
“We recognize that ultimately we are going to be a little bit slower,” Vannorsdel said by phone. “We’re trying to be creative.”
Theater owners are scrambling to keep the doors open, to head off a steep a dive in sales and protect against the ever-looming threat of streaming. The coronavirus outbreak gives film fans a big reason to choose the sofa and Netflix over theaters, said Jeff Bock, a senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co.
Closing theaters “creates a hysteria among the people that’s very hard to contain,” he said. “Especially these theaters who are already having a very difficult time, especially when they’re competing against streaming. They may be thinking: ‘If we shut our doors we may never reopen.”’
To allay consumers’ fears, Fridley’s is considering using empty seats as a buffer between patrons and offering everyone cleaning wipes, Vannorsdel said. Alamo Drafthouse, the chain known for serving beer and gourmet burgers to audiences during screenings, has cut the capacity of its largest auditorium in San Francisco to stay within virus-related crowd limits imposed by the state, and has asked attendees to spread out.
The largest chains, including AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., Cinemark Holdings Inc. and Regal, haven’t said much beyond that they’re doing more cleaning. Many of their auditoriums seat hundreds of spectators. At least one of the chains says it plans to cut down ticket sales to stay within California’s new ban on gatherings of more than 250 people.
With the stock market plunging and theaters especially vulnerable, shares of cinema owners have collapsed, far surpassing the decline in broader averages. Many were already struggling with high debt and declining attendance.
Normally, industry leaders would be gathering about this time of year for their annual convention -- an opportunity to discuss ways to cope with the coronavirus crisis. But like other such events, CinemaCon was canceled to prevent further spread of Covid-19.
“The global circumstances make it impossible for us to mount the show that our attendees have come to expect,” John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, said in a statement.
Even with studios putting their new releases on hold, Vannorsdel said he is still looking on the bright side. He’s considering showing independent films that would normally never compete with a new James Bond installment or Disney picture. He particularly has his eye on “New Providence,” about six-on-six girls basketball in Iowa.
A flood of independent movies is available too, after industry events like South by Southwest and the Tribeca Film Festival were canceled due to Covid-19. Some widely anticipated films, like “A Quiet Place Part II” and “Mulan,” will still be released this year. Others will be held until 2021.
“The next couple months could be financially difficult, but then once we get past that, we’ll have a fantastic slate,” Vannorsdel said. “And then people will really want to be getting out of the house.”
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