Say Goodbye to Movie Theaters

For now.

Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

Updated at 2:52 p.m. ET on March 16, 2020.

When MGM delayed the release of the next James Bond movie, No Time to Die, on March 4, it was a decision made in the face of economic realities. Because of the spread of the coronavirus, movie theaters were closed all across China, and there were growing concerns that large gatherings in mainland Europe would soon need to be limited. But no other studio immediately followed suit; MGM seemed to be in a uniquely precarious position, needing the Bond film to open big, because it had little else on its 2020 slate.

What a difference a couple of weeks make.

The dominoes are now falling for the rest of Hollywood: Fast & Furious 9 was pushed from May to April of next year. A Quiet Place Part II was delayed indefinitely. Disney actually held some press screenings of its Mulan remake, but then announced that it would be delayed, along with the planned April releases of The New Mutants and Antlers. As of now, the next wide release being planned by a major studio is Universal’s Trolls World Tour on April 10. But it will likely have to wait, along with big May releases such as Marvel’s Black Widow. (Today, NBCUniversal said that several of its films, including Trolls World Tour, would be available on demand to rent as soon as they hit theaters.) It’s hard to guess when normalcy will return and when people will feel comfortable going back to crowded movie theaters—if the theaters are even allowed to reopen.

Many major municipalities, such as New York and Los Angeles, have closed all movie theaters as part of wider bans on group gatherings. The theaters that remain open around America are trying to limit audience sizes—AMC and Regal, the country’s two biggest cinema chains, have reduced capacity by 50 percent in all their screens. Last weekend’s box office sold a total of about $55.3 million in tickets, the worst figure for Hollywood since 2000 (without adjusting for inflation).

It’s hard to offer any meaningful analysis of the weekend’s box office. Pixar’s Onward was still No. 1, but dipped 73 percent from the weekend before, almost double the typical kind of drop for a children’s animated feature. Vin Diesel’s action flick Bloodshot and the inspirational Christian drama I Still Believe both took about $9 million. Also on offer to viewers are the controversial Blumhouse thriller The Hunt and leftovers such as The Invisible Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, and The Way Back. Whatever theaters do stay open in the coming weeks will have little else to tempt viewers with.

For Hollywood, like so many industries that require people to leave their home and congregate in a public space, the next few months will be a waiting game. When will returning to cinemas be possible? After many weeks of self-quarantining and social distancing, will people be eager to rub shoulders again when restrictions are lifted? And what will happen to the release calendar, with so many delayed blockbusters likely to clog up the schedule when they’re finally ready for the viewing public? There are far more urgent public-health concerns to consider in the short term, of course, but after years of industry hand-wringing over the future of the cinematic experience, it will still be quite a shock to see Hollywood go into total hibernation for weeks or months on end.

The cruelest irony, of course, is that people quarantined in their home will desperately be in search of distractions. Many TV shows will be able to air uninterrupted for a while (though many currently in production are now on hiatus), but the only new blockbusters that have made it online are months-old releases such as Frozen 2 (which debuted on Disney+ early) and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (which was made available to buy online a few days ahead of schedule). As movie theaters remain closed, will major studios take a risk and attempt to debut big-screen films online only? That would be a genuine revolution—and a sign that Hollywood perceives no end in sight for this crisis.

The flip side is that absence could make the heart grow fonder. If the virus does eventually begin to abate, it’s easy to imagine the return of big cinematic releases feeling comparatively joyful after viewers have spent so much time at home and away from their communities. But that’s just a fantasy at the moment, the same notion as the “deep V” recession some analysts are hoping for, in which the economy quickly rebounds after the crisis passes. In theory, movie theaters will eventually spring back to life, rejuvenated after hibernation. But it’s tough to think beyond theory at this point.