Suppose They Showed a Movie and Nobody Came

The drive-in theater has become a respite for movie lovers in the age of the coronavirus. Photo courtesy of the Drive-in at Sawyer Yards

On October 4, 2019, Joker – Todd Phillips’ dark reimagining of the Batman villain with Joaquin Phoenix – danced its ways into movie theaters across the United States. Critics and audiences were split in their opinions. Many found it far too grim to be enjoyable. Despite this, Joker received eleven Academy Award nominations and won two, including a Best Actor trophy for Phoenix.

Other movies from 2019 included Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Jojo Rabbit, Parasite, 1917, Ford v Ferrari, Alita: Battle Angel, and Us (just to name a few). Sequels and remakes included It Chapter 2, Terminator: Dark Fate, Little Women, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and Downton Abbey. In all, it was a packed twelve months for movies.

How much difference a year can make. Now in October 2020, the joke’s on us. After several good months of new titles, the industry shut down, and one by one, all the significant film release dates have been pushed back to 2021 and beyond. Cinemas have been shuttered on and off with no end in sight, and the major theater chains are teetering on the verge of collapse.

Thank you, coronavirus. You’ve made this a year to remember.

In a previous blog, I mentioned the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and its effects on the entertainment industry. The similarities between that epidemic and the current situation are many and could hardly be covered in detail here. However, there are differences as well, the most notable being the catastrophic results of a shutdown that went from days and weeks to months. In both cases, the population was asked to stay indoors as much as possible, avoid crowds, wash their hands, and wear face masks. Houston’s October 1918 shutdown covered large gatherings and meetings, public places, schools, performance halls, and movie theaters. It lasted for two weeks, a mere blip when compared to the current state of affairs. Once the proclamation was lifted in the latter part of October 1918, life soon got back to normal. The flu ran its course.

Over its century-plus history beginning in the 1890s, movies and the places that show them have had to deal with multiple threats, both internal and external. The struggle for legitimacy lasted well into the twenties before it became recognized as a reputable art form as well as a source for entertainment. Competition rose in the form of radio, then television in the fifties, home video and cable in the eighties and beyond, and more recently, the added expansion into streaming services. Despite all this, theaters have managed to stay intact. The core fact is that the optimum condition for watching a movie remains a communal experience.

Covid-19 changed all that and has become the single biggest threat to movie theaters’ survival and the industry in which they operate. The warning signs came early with shutdowns in other countries prior to the infection spreading across the United States. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo closed on March 11, 2020, halfway into its schedule. It was supposed to run until March 22. AMC and Regal theatrical chains shut down in mid-March, and an official stay-at-home order was issued for Harris County on the 24th of the month. Many thought it would only be a matter of several weeks before life resumed as usual. This was not the case.

The first cinemas to reopen were the smaller chains, beginning with the Star Cinema Grill in May. AMC and Regal held off until August.

The closure of the legitimate movie houses brought about a resurrection of a venue long considered to be dead: the drive-in movie theater. In retrospect, this seems a logical progression since cars offered the needed social distancing to operate. The Showboat in Tomball had been around since 2006, and except for a brief shut down earlier this year, has operated as usual but with some additional precautions taken due to the coronavirus. The Rooftop Cinema Club opened the Drive-in at Sawyer Yards in response to the shutdown, with the image projected onto the grain silos. Others included the Space City Shows at 2300 Runnels Street and the Moonstruck Drive-in Cinema at 100 Bringhurst Street.

The larger problem has not been where to show the movies but what to show. Most of the product has tended to be films initially released just before the pandemic or older “classic” movies, a harder sell since most of these are readily available on cable, home video, and streaming services. Meanwhile, the major studios have re-evaluated how to best release their product.

Universal Pictures fired the opening volley when it pulled Trolls World Tour from a traditional theatrical release in lieu of digital rental. AMC did not take kindly to having the rug pulled from under their feet and announced that they would not support simultaneous theatrical/digital releases.

The release dates for major films such as No Time to Die keep getting pushed back.

Major titles for this year have been rescheduled one or more times, pushing the dates back to the end of 2000, into next year, and even into 2022. The two top movies under scrutiny have been the latest James Bond movie in the franchise, No Time to Die, and Wonder Woman 1984. No Time to Die moved from an original release date of November 2019 to February 2020, then April, November 25, and finally April 2, 2021. Wonder Woman 1984 is still slated (as of this writing) for a holiday release on December 25, after being bumped from June to August, then October. For a full list of release dates, see the related article in Vulture.

The one sacrificial lamb offered to cinemas was Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which opened domestically on September 3 to small crowds. While it did well worldwide, the uncertainty of venturing into a movie theater kept many away. Others did not even realize that local theaters had reopened.

On a personal note, I’ve been to the movies in the theater multiple times during this crisis. I have felt perfectly safe there. Then again, the auditoriums were mostly empty, which indicates the inherent problem the industry is facing. The theater chains are bleeding.

Tenet proved not to be the savior that many in the industry had hoped for.

Cineworld, owners of Regal, announced that they would shut down their theaters again on October 8 for an unspecified time. AMC and Cinemark are still open as of this writing. Multiple news reports suggested that AMC would exhaust all of its cash reserves by the end of the year. Along with other cinemas, it has taken to renting out their auditoriums for private events, a means for generating additional income during these uncertain times.

As of today, October 17 – seven months since Houston theaters first closed their doors, there is still no end in sight. Many in the industry speculate on the future of theatrical releases and the legitimate movie theaters. While a substantial part of the problem stems from the pandemic, there is also the movie studios’ symbiotic role with the theater chains. Theaters depend on new product. By pushing release dates back, it only makes existence more difficult for cinema chains and those who work for them. Nor is skipping a theatrical release and moving directly to cable/direct streaming a viable solution. It only removes a key revenue source before reaching the additional avenue that would be a part of the equation anyway. 

There is no easy answer for this, but it is likely tied to an equally difficult question: When will this pandemic – which has cost so much in the number of lives lost, of economic hardship, and changed the way we live every aspect of our lives – come to an end?

The only thing for certain is in the volume of future movies that will deal with this subject. Perhaps we might see it in a theater – if they are still around.

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Cinema Houston celebrates a vibrant century of movie theatres and moviegoing in Texas’s largest city. This weblog is a companion to the Book, Cinema Houston: From Nickelodeon to Megaplex (University of Texas Press, 2007), and website, www.CinemaHouston.net.

David Welling is a Houston-based writer, artist, and graphic designer. His lifelong interest in movies (and the places that show them) led to the writing of Cinema Houston, which included fifteen years of research, and its subsequent website.


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