Roundup: Beleaguered American, Chinese cinema theaters try to plan for post-coronavirus era

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by Julia Pierrepont III

LOS ANGELES, July 21 (Xinhua) -- Though still shuttered, U.S. and Chinese theater chains are beginning to show the first stirrings of life, but business insiders who have planned for reopening since last month, agreed that it is too soon to tell how permanent the damage of their prolonged COVID-19 shutdowns will be.

"Our theater general managers across the U.S. ... are back in their theaters gearing up to get their buildings fully ready just a few weeks from now for moviegoers," AMC CEO Adam Aron said in a statement on June 30. "That happy day, when we can welcome guests back into most of our U.S. theaters, will be Thursday, July 30."

Reacting to the pushed release date of two of Hollywood's bigger potential blockbusters -- Christopher Nolan's "Tenet" and Disney's live action "Mulan," America's largest theater chain, AMC, is still waiting for its anticipated reopening and struggling to meet onerous safety protocols.

When AMC Theaters slowed their roll, delaying the reopening of approximately 600 theaters around the country from mid-July to July 30, some theaters in low risk areas of China reopened on this Monday.

Moreover, they have a massive backlog of titles to exhibit, including Hollywood titles "Sonic the Hedgehog," "Dolittle," and Oscar winners, "Ford v Ferrari," "1917," and "Jojo Rabbit."

This good news from China brought relief to Hollywood as well, even though they knew most of China's theaters remained shuttered as well so far after a brief and partial reopening in mid-March.

The huge market in China can not be replaced by others, such as the resurgence of outdoor drive-in theaters amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a popular phenomenon in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, where viewers can watch films outdoors on a huge screen from the safety of their own cars. There are not enough drive-ins left to power a massive studio weekend release to a 500-million-U.S. dollar box office or more.

"Sitting in a closed-in theater with no windows is iffy," President of RelishMix, Marc Karzen, told Xinhua Tuesday. "So drive-in movies are a thing again. But it's not dark until 9:00 p.m., so you can't push massive box office for new movies through them. They work best for vintage movies."

RelishMix is a leading Hollywood social analytics firm for film, television and streaming programs that tracks and enhances social engagement for new releases.

The prolonged closures of traditional cinemas caused a ripple effect that is sending an untold number of small and medium-sized film companies and theaters out of business on both sides of the Pacific, especially if closures continue into autumn.

President of Artisan Gateway, Rance Pow, said at a press conference early this month: "Since there is no confirmed cinema industry reopening schedule, dating new films also remains in flux. 'Must see' films will be an important determinant of how the industry recovers, and as we're into the summer period now, a chunk of the season is already lost."

Comscore's Paul Dergarabedian, a leading media metrics analyst, reported, "China can often save a movie. Some of those films that didn't do well in North America did do well internationally, particularly in China."

Doug Creutz, an industry analyst for Cowen, told The Hollywood Reporter daily: "We now expect domestic theaters to be largely closed until mid-2021, in part because we don't think studios will be interested in releasing their largest movies into a capacity-constrained footprint."

But if theaters remain shuttered indefinitely, the economic impact on the entire industry would be devastating all the way from the smallest indie to the biggest studios. Industry insiders hold out hope that online streaming giants like Netflix and iQIYI will be able to keep the entertainment industry afloat while it is undergoing massive restructuring.

For instance, Disney had planned on launching Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton" in wide theatrical release worldwide, but because they couldn't predict when theaters would reopen, they opted to give it a well-advertized online release instead. That gambit paid off handsomely grossing Disney+ over 100 million U.S. dollars in increased subscriptions.

Former Newsweek correspondent, Rolling Stone Publisher, and filmmaker, Porter Bibb told Xinhua Monday that big changes were coming. "You will see an acceleration of major films that don't start out in the traditional exhibition formula of opening in a movie theater, and more direct-to-streaming, even with major pictures..."

Bibb praised an exciting new approach that Chinese exhibitors had come up to lure audiences back into theaters -- hosting live Zoom-style Q&As with the movie's stars right after the movie.

"That's innovative," Bibb smiled. "Audiences will come to theaters for that." Enditem

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