The Fate of Movie Theaters Could Hinge on the Outcome of the Election

Tom Brueggemann
·4 min read

There are only a handful of major titles left on the 2020 release calendar, and no one can be sure that they will stay there. This week “Respect” moved to August, even as Entertainment Weekly devoted an extended cover story to its would-be Oscar nominee, Jennifer Hudson. Theaters are closing again overseas, and the Cannes Film Festival is already considering alternative solutions should its May 2021 date be considered too soon. These are problems without solution, but hope could be on the horizon — depending on who wins the U.S. presidential election November 3.

Of all the issues that voters must consider, the future of movie theaters wouldn’t make a list of the top 1,000. However, election results could significantly impact theaters and studios as they consider the short- and long-term strategies that will bring them closer to recovery. The most recent Democratic Senate aid proposal added movie theaters to the Save Our Stages plan initially designed for live venues only. The package is meant to supplement broader paycheck protection programs and help audience-based entertainment businesses crippled by COVID-19.

Here’s a snapshot of how the political scenarios might impact exhibition.

Joe Biden Elected President, Democrats Win the Senate

Under this scenario, Democrats would control all of elected government. It is the party more committed to aggressive actions in fighting the pandemic, including the support elevated stimulus programs. Senate Democrats would have to end the filibuster to avoid the need for 60 votes to pass legislation; if that happened, it might be the best hope for theaters. Theaters couldn’t benefit until February or later, but even if those were the indications from the President-elect and Congressional leaders before January 20, optimism could go a long way.

Joe Biden Elected President, Republicans Retain the Senate

A president has substantial influence on many aspects of pandemic response, but divided control would mean roadblocks for stimulus programs, with perhaps even less incentive for Republicans to go along with the limited packages they seem to favor so far. What compromises might occur? Would one side see preventing aid as helpful to its longer-term prospects, or worry about being seen as destructive? Political gamesmanship is more common than statesmanship.

Donald Trump is Re-elected

In this case, all bets are off. Was ignoring the pandemic a ploy to win the election, but the administration gets serious afterward? Would Trump take it as a sign to continue a laissez-faire policy favoring herd immunity and letting states handle it with little federal help or guidance? It’s hard to imagine this scenario offering comfort to theaters. The federal government can’t order governors and mayors to keep theaters open, and the persistent virus would continue to suppress interest in moviegoing.

On the other hand, if the status quo (including Republican Senate retention) holds, it might encourage a lame-duck session combined with presidential encouragement to come up with a stimulus deal. It would almost certainly be much less than a Democratic package, and less likely to include anything for cinemas. Similarly, it is possible the scale of the ongoing disaster might lead a Republican Senate to pass at least some stimulus in order to get credit down the line.

Election unlikely to impact releases through January

“Wonder Woman 1984” and the few other few top studio titles don’t care about the election; their distributors are focused on the current state of the global market. Certainly, no election result would inspire delayed titles to return to 2020. If studios decide the government will not aggressively combat COVID-19, and thus make theaters less viable for an indefinite period, it’s likely that more top titles will move to home platforms.

For theaters, that alone might be the biggest reason to hope for a Democratic victory. A Biden win along with the Senate is not guarantee of a return to normalcy. But at least it suggests some hope in that direction.

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