When can I go see a movie? Hollywood and theaters ponder what’s next.

Why We Wrote This

How long until moviegoing returns? Hollywood and theater owners are weighing a host of issues, including when to distribute films and the logistics of gathering indoors in groups. 

Chris Pizzello/AP
A pedestrian looks up at the marquee of the currently closed Vista Theatre, Tuesday, April 21, 2020, in Los Angeles. Movie theaters across the United States are considering the best way to reopen.

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James Bond has narrowly escaped sharks, tigers, and even a tsunami. But in March, 007 finally met his match in the coronavirus. The 25th Bond film, “No Time to Die,” was the first movie to delay its release. Originally scheduled for April, James Bond will return in November. As COVID-19 escalated, other movies followed suit, with no summer blockbusters planned until mid-July.

The coronavirus has brought a number of changes to Hollywood, including a recent announcement that movies that have gone straight to streaming can be considered for Oscars.

With no new films in the pipeline, theater owners are taking their time considering the best way to reopen, even in states where they are allowed to do so. The future of moviegoing depends on the effectiveness of movie-house practices, says Katherine Tallman, executive director and CEO of the Coolidge Corner Theatre, an independent art-house cinema in Boston. Even so, she anticipates audiences will return. 

“People really want to get together,” says Ms. Tallman. “I don’t see that desire, that human desire to collect and share experiences, ever going away.”   

How will social distancing change going to the movies, one of the most popular leisure activities of the past century? The coronavirus affects every aspect of the big-screen business, from release dates to cinema attendance. Your popcorn may be on hold for a while.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

How has the COVID-19 shutdown affected Hollywood’s schedules?

James Bond has narrowly escaped sharks, tigers, and even a tsunami. But in March, 007 finally met his match in the coronavirus. The 25th Bond film, “No Time to Die,” was the first movie to delay its release. Originally scheduled for April, James Bond will return in November. As COVID-19 escalated, other movies followed suit.

“I told somebody at Paramount ... ‘When are you moving ‘Top Gun 2’ to Christmas?’” recalls Pete Hammond, chief film critic for Deadline. “He got all mad at me. Then, only two days later, they ended up moving ‘Top Gun 2’ to Christmas.”  

As of now there won’t be any summer blockbusters until Christopher Nolan’s action flick “Tenet” on July 17, followed by the belated arrival of a pair of heroines: the live-action “Mulan” (July 24) and “Wonder Woman 1984” (Aug. 14). Mr. Hammond wonders if those dates will shift again.

When cinemas reopen, studios will likely avoid bunching the releases of delayed movies. A measured rollout will give each film space to maximize its audience share. That’s why “F9” (or “Fast and Furious 9”), Disney’s “Jungle Cruise,” and “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” have been pushed back a full year to 2021. Rescheduling release dates in global markets has created a multiyear domino effect. For example, Indiana Jones – originally due to return in a fifth movie next summer – will now crack his whip in July 2022. 

Spacing out the release dates also gives studios time to complete movies whose filming was suspended by COVID-19. The scrambled production timelines may create conflicts for in-demand talent, who might have to turn down other movie opportunities because of prior commitments.

What will moviegoing look like when cinemas reopen?

That is literally a multimillion dollar question. Cinemas will have to incorporate stringent social distancing measures – think fewer seats available in each theater – as well as boost disinfection procedures. No one knows yet whether cinemas will uniformly implement policies such as taking customers’ temperatures before allowing entry. But the future of moviegoing depends on the effectiveness of movie-house practices, says Katherine Tallman, executive director and CEO of the Coolidge Corner Theatre, an independent art-house cinema in Boston.

“We want to make sure that people have a perception that everything is really carefully handled, really clean,” says Ms. Tallman.

The last thing anyone needs, she adds, is a false start in which theaters open and are blamed for spreading the virus. The three largest movie chains – AMC, Regal, and Cinemark – remain closed for now. Theater owners in Georgia have expressed reluctance to reopen even though the state permitted them to do so in late April. And in Texas, only a handful of small cinemas have taken advantage of the green light to resume business. Evo Entertainment opened a couple of its theaters near San Antonio and instituted checks of customers’ temperatures. The Santikos company opened 3 of its 9 locations in San Antonio, but capped capacity at 25%. All eyes will be on Germany’s biggest state, North Rhine Westphalia, where cinemas are due to reopen on May 30. 

Most movie theaters aren’t in a rush to reopen because there aren’t new movies to screen. For many owners, it will likely only make sense to open when they know enough customers will attend. Drive-ins may benefit first. 

Long term, it’s unlikely that COVID-19 will put an end to moviegoing. After all, cinemas have survived the introduction of television, videotapes, and streaming. 

“People really want to get together,” says Ms. Tallman. “I don’t see that desire, that human desire to collect and share experiences, ever going away. In fact, I think that now that none of us can have it, it’s even more evident.”  

How will the Oscars be affected?

In recent years, the Academy Awards decided to forgo a host. Will the 2021 ceremony eschew a theater audience? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has had more immediate concerns than whether to, say, bring back Billy Crystal to host via videoconference. In late April, the academy’s board of governors voted to waive its long-standing requirement that movies must screen in a Los Angeles theater for one week to qualify for consideration. The temporary rule change will benefit contenders that have had to skip a theatrical release and go straight to streaming. Once theaters reopen, the academy will also allow movies to screen in several other cities across the U.S. to meet eligibility requirements.

“The bigger question is, when will this really get ramped up again to the point where you have an awards season, where you have the ability to get all these movies out and seen?” asks Mr. Hammond. “Will they have to move the Oscars [from February] back to April?”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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