Last week, I attended my first film screening that required proof of vaccination against COVID-19 upon entry. I presented my photo ID and Excelsior Pass (New York’s centralized vaccination status app) and swanned on in. The entire process took 15 seconds, and in return I received the invaluable assurance that my fellow cinemagoers had also been inoculated. My experience was in line with New York City policy, which mandates proof of vaccination for many indoor activities. It remains an open question whether movie theaters around the country will embrace the strategy, as fears of the Delta variant keep box-office totals from rebounding to full strength at a crucial moment for the industry. But in an uncertain time, vaccine mandates for eligible moviegoers might be the only way to salvage the long-term future of the cinema experience.
Exhibitors seem to understand this. “Honestly, it’s a mixed bag for movie theaters. On the one hand, it will cost us some business, and we know that, because some unvaccinated people won’t be able to attend our cinemas,” National Association of Theatre Owners CEO John Fithian told The Wrap. “The upside, of course, is that we as an industry ... recognize that we need vaccination rates to climb to get back to a full recovery as we go into next year,” he said, adding that mandates spur people’s interest in getting vaccinated. (The recent FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine is helping to justify mandates in schools, hospitals, and other workplaces in some jurisdictions.)
Although Fithian’s fears have some validity in the short term, a vaccine requirement would be a gift for an industry looking to distinguish itself on a national scale as a safe social experience. If large theater chains mandated vaccines nationwide—and they have so far not objected to announced ordinances such as the ones in New York City and Los Angeles—a hit to revenue would be expected. Fithian pointed out to The Wrap that in France and Italy, where proof of vaccination or a negative test is required at movie theaters, box-office totals reportedly dropped some 40 percent after implementation, although have since started to improve. As a long-term play, vaccine requirements for U.S. theaters could help head off the public’s fears at a moment when cinemas are still struggling to find their footing, and as studios prepare to roll out major fall films such as Dune, No Time to Die, and Top Gun: Maverick.
After losing some $32 billion in ticket sales worldwide in 2020, Hollywood’s ability to further delay its biggest releases is limited. Following a promising summer, with blockbusters such as Black Widow and F9 posting huge opening weekends reminiscent of a pre-pandemic era, grosses have declined again and Hollywood has been mired in debate over releases that are available online and in theaters simultaneously. The Suicide Squad, a Warner Bros. film that was also made available on HBO Max, has only just cracked $49 million more than three weeks in; its predecessor grossed $325 million domestically even though it had far worse reviews. Despite a strong opening, Black Widow had no real longevity in cinemas, a failure attributed to its rentability on Disney+ (and which has spurred a lawsuit from its star, Scarlett Johansson).
However, some recent successes suggest that a demand for the cinematic experience still exists, and is just waiting to be tapped into. Ryan Reynolds’s Free Guy, a video-game spoof not based on any existing work, has shown surprising strength at the box office, helped by the fact that it’s not available on other platforms yet. Though many studios have sold their family movies to streaming services out of the fear that nobody wants to bring unvaccinated children to theaters, the debut of a Paw Patrol feature last week pulled in a respectable $13 million in ticket sales despite being available online. (Even so, risk calculations for families with kids under 12 are more complicated, with or without vaccine mandates.)
No business decision in 2021 is an easy one. A vaccine requirement would cause some political consternation along with the usual hue and cry that erupts over seemingly every COVID-19 policy in America. But mandates are supported by a majority of Americans, and 71 percent of eligible Americans have received at least one dose of a vaccine. As Juliette Kayyem argued for The Atlantic, “Employers and entertainment venues are realizing that they can operate more easily without the hassle of planning around unvaccinated employees and customers.” A mask-wearing policy alone offers limited protection against COVID-19 in theaters, given that they all sell popcorn, soda, candy, and sometimes full meals, concessions being the most crucial part of their bottom line. Most moviegoers crave safety in a large public space, and theaters can offer them more security with a quick check at the door. The arrival of vaccines was what brought theaters back in early 2021, and mandates would help cement that sense of sanctuary.