COVID-19 temporarily dims lights at local movie theaters

Courtesy Malco Theatres, Inc.

Movie theaters in Fayetteville and in the surrounding cities of Springdale, Rogers, and Bentonville are temporarily closed to comply with social distancing measures outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Monday.

The CDC announcement of recommending that gatherings be limited to no more than 10 people prompted the closures by the chain-owned theaters. The Fiesta Square 12, owned by AMC, the second-largest movie chain in the United States, suspended operations Monday along with the chain’s 629 other outlets for the next six to 12 weeks.

The Malco chain, based in Memphis, announced Tuesday all its theaters would temporarily close to comply with the CDC recommendations, which includes the Razorback Cinema Grill and IMAX in Fayetteville, The Springdale Cinema Grill, and The Towne Cinema and Pinnacle Hills Cinema in Rogers.

The independently owned Skylight Cinema in Bentonville also announced its temporary closure Tuesday. The 112 Drive In in Fayetteville announced it would postpone its planned March 27 opening until a later date.

The Siloam Springs 6, owned by Center Cinemas of Oklahoma, has showings scheduled for Wednesday afternoon and evening, according to its website Wednesday morning, but calls to the theater for confirmation went unanswered Tuesday and Wednesday.

Obviously, the CDC recommendations played an important role in the decision by the chain theaters to suspend operations, but movie studios holding back the release of major films scheduled for spring no doubt played a role in the decision.

Prior to the theater closures, studios such as Disney, Universal, and Paramount pulled the release dates for major films like “Black Widow,” “A Quiet Place: Part II,” “Mulan,” and the James Bond adventure “No Time to Die,” holding the movies to be released for when patrons would feel more comfortable sitting in a roomful of people they don’t know.

With only stale releases left to exhibit and more and more film dates being pushed back daily, the decision by film chains to close temporarily was likely easier than we might think, even without the CDC tightening its recommendations for gatherings from 250 to 50 to 10 in just days.

After the box-office record-breaking year of 2019, 2020 had already been slow, but the legitimate threat of the coronavirus pandemic led to the lowest weekend box-office take in 20 years in the United States and Canada for March 13-15.

Domestic ticket sales were just $55.3 million, a 44 percent plunge from the previous weekend, despite three new films – “I Still Believe,” “Bloodshot,” and The Hunt” — opening, according to Comscore, which compiles box-office data. The next lowest cumulative for ticket sales dates back to Sept, 17, 2000 at $54.5 million.

Newer films going to on-demand

Even more interesting for consumers is that studios are responding to the theater closures by offering some newer films to video-on-demand (VOD) sites more quickly.

Studios and theaters had a 90-day VOD window negotiated where studios would not offer their films on streaming or cable platforms until at least 90 days after the film opened theatrically. However, with theaters closed, the studios don’t have to comply with the agreement.

Universal announced Monday that it would make “The Invisible Man,” “Emma,” and “The Hunt,” available on VOD this Friday for a 48-hour rental for $19.99.

In response, Warner Bros. announced the DC Comics-based “Birds of Prey” and the civil-justice courtroom drama “Just Mercy” will be available on VOD on March 24 for a similar rental period and price as the Universal releases. Expect other studios to follow suit.

Other than “The Hunt,” all of those films had already done the bulk of the business they were going to do in theaters even if the coronavirus hadn’t cratered attendance last weekend.

However, the trial balloon to watch during this time of quickly shifting sands is the release of “Trolls World Tour” to VOD on April 10, which was the date the DreamWorks Animation sequel was supposed to be released in theaters.

How the family-friendly film does on VOD could impact the future of the way some films are released.

Theaters in the past resisted allowing day-and-date release of films in theaters and on VOD to protect the business model of both industries. Obviously the theaters didn’t want the competition, but studios complied because the 90-day window between release in theaters and on VOD gave them two revenue sources from the same product.

Theatrical release also offered the potential for a much higher revenue stream because individual tickets must be bought by each movie-goer. With VOD, a family of four or 15 could watch the same movie for the price of one rental.

That’s why at the moment studios are pushing back the dates on films that stand to be big-time money makers in theaters rather than opting for VOD release like “Trolls World Tour.”

Once the pandemic subsides, the thought is that Americans will be even more starved for new content as well as the communal experience of watching movies in a theater.

Pushing the films back also help fill the pipeline with new material for the gap that will be caused by the suspension of production and filming of movies during this time of social distancing.

TV programming expected to take major hit

This gap will affect the film industry in untold ways, costing it billions by some estimates, but it will likely be even harder on television programming, particularly for new shows expected for next fall.

If the need for social distancing extends into the mid and possibly late summer as Vice President Pence and President Trump suggested in a press conference Tuesday, there are very likely films and television shows in production as recently as the weekend that might not go forward.

The money might not be there.

Some TV analysts are suggesting the pilot season, where one episode of a new show is filmed to sell it to networks for the fall season, is out the window for this year.

Those who enjoy the scads of new Christmas movies that fill the schedule for Hallmark and other channels in November and December will likely feel the pinch, too. Many of those movies are shot in spring and summer before airing during the holiday season.

The good thing for film and TV fans who are self distancing is that there has never been more available through streaming and cable services than now. This is the time to try out different shows and films — new and old — with those closest to you.

There’s a bevy of material available. We’d love to hear what you’ll be watching and what you’d suggest we and others should check out.