COVID-19 forced most movie theaters across the country to close for more than a year. But rising vaccination rates are helping them to reopen and highly anticipated films are drawing viewers. Atlantic reporter Shirley Li joins CBSN with more.
- The film industry is banking on new blockbusters to revive the decimated movie box office.
- (SINGING) In the heights, I flip the lights and start my day. There are fights, endless debts, and bills to pay.
New movies, such as Lin Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights," are expected to attract people back into theaters. And theater owners are also trying to pay the bills. COVID-19 forced most indoor viewing venues to close across the country for more than a year. But now, highly anticipated films and rising vaccination rates are helping theaters to reopen. Owners are staffing up and taking steps to be sure the audience has an enjoyable and safe experience.
For more on all this, I want to bring in Shirley Li. She's a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers culture. Welcome, Shirley. Great to have you with us. Obviously, COVID-19--
SHIRLEY LI: Thank you for having me.
- Was a huge-- great to have you. It was a-- COVID-19 was a huge blow to the movie industry. How badly was it hurt?
SHIRLEY LI: Well, the entire movie industry landscape pretty much changed because of the pandemic. The global box office tumbled about 72% in 2020. As you probably noticed, a lot of major tent poles and Blockbuster films had to be delayed by months or more than a year.
And major theater chains like AMC, you know, shuttered 60 theaters-- locations, I believe. Other chains like Cineworld lost more than $2 billion in revenue. So I'd say, yeah. The movie industry truly suffered as a result of this pandemic.
- And so, as people start to return and the movie houses open their doors again, what can moviegoers expect? Is it going to be just like the old days or will there be some new you know, regulations and standards in place?
SHIRLEY LI: Well, theater owners are hoping that things have changed and that when moviegoers return to the theaters they won't be expecting the same thing. They-- when I spoke to several executives, they were saying that four things will be different. The first thing is that the experience will be more digitized.
They want as much of the theater going experience to be contactless as possible, so expect to order concessions over an app instead of waiting in line, and you know, having to pick those up in person. The experience will also be more private. They will continue private screenings for now. They started that during the pandemic and it turned out to be really lucrative. So you can basically rent out an entire theater for yourself and your friends, whoever you're comfortable with.
Third, you know, theaters want to be your first stop away from home. They-- they have changed the experience to be more luxurious. They want a certain loyalty. They want frequent moviegoers to come back again and again. Those are the moviegoers who go see a movie at least once a month, and they hope to increase that number. So they're going to start those subscription services again.
And finally, on a more depressing note, I think moviegoers can expect to see more closures, especially of smaller theaters such as, here in Los Angeles, you know, the Pacific Theaters, the ArcLight Cinemas, those closed rather recently. And there are probably going to be more to come.
- And the ones that did survive, it seems barely survived. What must these theaters do to bring people back? Are they-- you know, do they have ways of luring people back? Are there incentives? And what are the hurdles they're facing?
SHIRLEY LI: Well, there are a couple of things. I think the owners that I spoke to, they are trying to emphasize how clean the theaters are. You know, for anyone who's uncomfortable with going back out again, they are trying to emphasize that there are precautions in place, mask wearing, staffers are cleaning theaters between every showing, so you can expect there to be more time between showings. You don't have to push past people again to get to your seats, at least for the time being.
The subscription services I mentioned, you know, loyalty rewards clubs, you can see these theaters making a push for those programs. They really want you to go back to theaters. But from the studio-- and I'll say that you'll notice there are a lot of horror films coming out this summer, as well as films targeted toward a younger audience, because through the research over the past year, despite the tumbling box office, they noticed that younger people are more likely to return to theaters more quickly.
So if you happen to be a genre fan, you know, you can see many more offerings. You know, "The Quiet Place Part Two" just came out, "The Conjuring," the latest "Conjuring" film did quite well at the box office. And so you can see that these theaters and these studios are kind of trying to work together to encourage people to immerse themselves in a theatrical experience again.
- It's-- it's funny you say that. The only people I know who've gone back to the movie theater so far are my two children, and they each went separately to see one of those horror movies that you just mentioned, so clearly we are on trend in my house.
Are we going to see-- are we going to see fewer movies now on streaming services, because as you'll recall, that was one of the ways that you know, studios dealt with the fact that no one was going into theaters, is they just released their films on streaming services? So are they going to pull that back now, to force people to go and see them on the big screen?
SHIRLEY LI: Yeah. This is a question that remains to be seen. Warner Media really took a swing last year, when it declared-- when the studio declared that all of its films would be released day and date on HBO Max, so films like "In the Heights," which I would say should be seen in theaters because of its scale and scope, is also available to watch if you want to stay at home.
But that is a rare exception, at least from what I'm seeing. I think most studios are keeping with a theatrical exclusive window. But it's difficult to tell. You know, if the question is, will there be fewer movies on streaming, I don't think so. I think streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are making their own original movies, so there's no end to content. But as far as films that were meant to be seen on the big screen, or at least from the creative teams really wanted you to see them on the big screen, they may still take a little while before they reach streaming services.
- All right. Well, Shirley Li from the Atlantic, thank you so much for getting us up to speed on what we can expect from the summer blockbusters. Thank you so much.
SHIRLEY LI: Thank you, Tanya.