Interview: Reviving movie theaters in a post-coronavirus world

Movie theaters are fighting an uphill battle, here's how they're doing it.

In March and April, the world began shutting its doors on all of its businesses due to the spread of coronavirus. This came right before the start of the summer blockbuster season with movies like Black Widow, Fast 9, No Time to Die, and more on the verge of release.

Many of these movies have been delayed to later in 2020 but movies like Fast 9 took an entire year delay, moving all the way to April 2021. The summer movie season will not begin until July 17th at the earliest with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet but even that is still a bit up in the air with WB ready to move at any second.

That said, some theaters are reopening their doors… with pretty much no new movies to show right now. We spoke to Russell Vannorsdel, Vice President of midwest theater chain Fridley Theaters, to get some insight on what the movie theater experience is going to look like in a post-coronavirus world.

Wonder Woman 1984 - Releasing in movie theaters on August 14th, 2020
Wonder Woman 1984 – Releasing in movie theaters on August 14th, 2020

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

While people are willing to go out to get their groceries and things they need, some people aren’t ready to return to the movie theater for obvious reasons. Some people say they won’t be for a really long time, going as far as to say they won’t go back until there’s some sort of vaccine for coronavirus. But it’s not because they don’t want to see movies.

“A lot of our guests are looking for a little sense of normalcy. You know, the whole point of going to the movie theater, pre-pandemic, was to get away and be entertained and experience something that’s not your everyday life. I can’t think of a time that it’s more important than now than in the past.”

Vannorsdel is taking steps to make sure their theaters are well-equipped to go above and beyond the standards required by the state for re-opening.

“Our IMAX auditorium in Waukee [, Iowa], it takes 318 people by the mandate. We can have 50% occupants in the occupancy in there as long as we’re socially distancing six feet apart. And with stadium seating and luxury recliners, we can space groups out legitimately and probably have 150 people in there. But when we reopen, we’re only selling 75 tickets and that’s because we want to control the congestion in the lobby, in the bathrooms, in the common areas, and make people feel and be very safe in our theater settings.”

As noted, all eyes are on Christopher Nolan and his espionage thriller, Tenet. The film which cost a reported $205 million to make aims to be the make or break for many movies this year. If audiences show up, it’ll tell studios they can likely comfortably release their movies without losing money. If it flops? Well, you’re going to have to wait some time to see movies like Wonder Woman 1984.

These big-budget titles can’t make the jump to VOD like Scoob. They cost too much and they need every person who sees the movie to pay the admission price for their ticket. With VOD, you can have one person pay $20 and then watch it with however many people you want. It also opens it up to easy piracy. The financial burden basically makes it impossible to do.

That said, some question whether enticing people to go see a highly-anticipated movie amidst a pandemic is a smart thing to do both financially and safely.

“I think Christopher Nolan really does want to kickoff the return to theaters. And he’s always been a huge advocate of a theater exhibition and the exhibition windows. [Tenet] doesn’t have a firm date yet, but the fact that they dropped the trailer last week and in our industry conversations, it sounds like Chris really does want to move forward with this. So here’s why he’s comfortable in doing it. Ultimately think of a 15 plex in Waukee, right? We’re going to have social distancing and it’s gotta be 50% occupancy or less. But instead of being on one screen or two screens at the Palms, Christopher Nolan’s going to open on probably 8 of our screens.”

Vannorsdel believes that even if the movie has a softer opening weekend due to the state of the world, Warner Brothers will still make the money they need simply due to the fact it has no competition and can eat up screens. The week after it releases, Disney will release its live-action remake of Mulan. This could theoretically take Tenet’s 8 screens and bring it down to 4 but it still allows it to generate the money it would need.

No Time to Die - Releasing in movie theaters on November 25th, 2020
No Time to Die – Releasing in movie theaters on November 25th, 2020

Of course, Tenet is still over a month away and we’re still not even guaranteed it’s going to hit that date. So, the question is: What are these theaters going to show? As of the time of writing, Fridley’s Palms location in Waukee, Iowa is showing a mixture of movies. Their showings include recent films that were in theaters when the pandemic began like The Way Back but also old-school classics like The Goonies, ET, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and even IMAX screenings of Indiana Jones.

Vannorsdel noted that there is a plan in place between studios and theaters to create social media campaigns to figure out what people want to see. Paramount Pictures already began polling people on Twitter by gauging interest in blockbusters like Transformers, World War Z, and Star Trek. You can expect to see more of that in the coming weeks and months.

“We’re going to have some social media campaigns where guests can give us an idea of what they would like to see in movie theaters until we get to some of the newer products. Some of the studios are working on programs for some of their repertory products. In fact, I know we’ve had some conversations with Disney where they’re looking at a four-week program at the end of June that would lead into Mulan. Think about some of the titles that Disney has, you know, whether that’s in the Marvel universe, the Star Wars universe, whether it’s animated or if it’s Pixar. So they’re picking some really good movies and then they’re going to have a national marketing campaign.”

Vannorsdel also said they’re working on IMAX-specific content as well. As noted, Indiana Jones is doing a run in IMAX right now but they’re also looking at bringing back Gravity and doing a Christopher Nolan “festival” with Batman, Interstellar, and likely others around the time of Tenet’s release.

Of course, some people are enjoying the VOD experience with movies like Trolls: World Tour. Trolls: World Tour had such a great reception on VOD that Universal said they’d like to make the theatrical to VOD windows shorter or do day and date for some movies. AMC and Cinemark took this as sacrilege and vowed to not show any more Universal films.

So, the question is, can VOD and theatrical films coexist?

“I do think they can. Obviously, when Trolls had its level of success, I think anybody that can look at it with common sense can understand that it had tremendous success on VOD because we were in extraordinary circumstances, right? I mean, you had families that hadn’t left the house and kids that hadn’t seen new content. I mean, I’ve got an eight-year-old and there’s only so many times that you can watch the same thing.”

Vannorsdel noted his disappointment in Universal looking into day and date efforts but they’re not going to take such extreme measures as other chains. He went on to talk about how the price is a hard sell for a rental (many films are charging $20 for 48 hours) and how people will likely appreciate the theater experience.

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run - Releasing in theaters on August 7th, 2020
The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run – Releasing in theaters on August 7th, 2020

“So I think what we’re going to see is that honestly, when we come out of it, people are going to appreciate that the actual [theater] experience more and I hope it strengthens our relationship with studios. There may be circumstances where a title may not be worth all of the marketing dollars and it may be easier to go to streaming or Disney+ with Artemis Fowl,” he said.

“NATO [National Association of Theaters] came out with a study that they used did with Ernst and Young, and they basically were proving to studios that you make more money by having a theatrical run and having that publicity and that box office revenue leading into a video released later. Hopefully, everybody kind of takes note of that.”

Theaters are slowly reopening across the country. Should everything go according to plan, NATO expects 90% of theaters to reopen by Tenet’s release on July 17th. Only time will tell how successful everything will be.