Misadventures in Moviegoing is an ongoing column that explores the ever-evolving state of seeing movies in theaters.
What’s worse right now, having your movie dumped to VOD or having your movie dumped into empty theaters? The latter seems to be the case as unfamiliar titles head to multiplexes before moviegoers are ready to go there themselves.
Last weekend, Paramount became the first of the major studios to release a new movie theatrically without any day-and-date presence on any home video formats. I don’t know the screen count for Mighty Oak or how much it grossed during its opening, but no box office sites are reporting numbers for the film. Meanwhile, Sony has just announced that its first dip back into the waters of theatrical releases will be with a little NYC-set romantic comedy called The Broken Hearts Gallery, which opens wide on July 10th.
For those keeping track, that’s one week ahead of the actually-anticipated Christoper Nolan-helmed blockbuster Tenet. It’s also the weekend when the number-three North America chain, Cinemark, promises to be fully open across the US. As for the two largest chains, AMC Theaters recently revealed they’ll be re-opening almost all their US locations by mid-July, and Regal Cinemas is also planning to be back and running next month, as well. If they all welcome audiences for the debut of The Broken Hearts Gallery, that could give them a brief practice run for Nolan’s movie.
But what will the crowds actually look like one month from now? Many states continue to ease restrictions despite the nation being in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is still going strong and even re-escalating in some areas. California just announced theaters can return to operations there this weekend, but not all theater owners are comfortable with re-opening their businesses just yet, and much of the public is quite wary of sitting in an enclosed space with strangers for an average of two hours.
California’s rules for re-opening theaters call for a maximum capacity of either twenty-five percent or one-hundred people, whichever is lower. That’s about the same as other parts of the country are running at lately, with Georgia’s new NCG Cinemas Brookhaven location reportedly operating slightly higher, at thirty percent. Cinemark is expecting to be at fifty percent by the time of Tenet‘s release. Of course, just as auditoriums aren’t completely filled in normal times, bigger crowds being permitted doesn’t mean capacity will be reached.
Especially with so many theaters not requiring face masks. So far, Cinemark and NCG are among the chains only making employees wear masks — unless otherwise mandated by local officials to also require patrons to wear them. AMC and Regal have not announced their stance yet, though the former is attempting unique safety efforts, such as advanced ventilation systems to keep germs from circulating so much during the movie. However, most measures being implemented by theaters are focused on surfaces rather than germs in the air, which is what the masks guard against.
Unfortunately, rules on masks have split Americans. Some people won’t cater to any establishment requiring them while other people will stay away from businesses for not doing so. Which is the larger demographic of the two? If the issue is as politically partisan a situation as it’s been made out to be, then Hollywood and theater owners could be looking at a half and half divide, and they need to choose one or the other. But that’s a weak assumption, and the true breakdown is probably not so easily defined along party lines so much as it is by individual personality type.
The decision might depend on what’s showing, too. Unhinged, which opens only in theaters on July 1st, would likely be more popular with the no-mask crowd as it’s about a man on the edge (played by Russell Crowe) who begins terrorizing a woman and her family after she made the mistake of honking at him in traffic. Of course, the titularly unhinged character probably isn’t meant to be the hero, but anyone against being made to wear a mask in public might relate to an antagonist put on the spot for not moving his vehicle when he’s inconveniencing another person.
And what of The Broken Hearts Gallery? The movie stars Geraldine Viswanathan, who is not exactly a household name but is recognizable enough for being one of the best parts of both Blockers and Bad Education, as an “emotional hoarder” inspired by her latest breakup to open a pop-up art gallery devoted to “items love has left behind.” Her male lead is Dacre Montgomery, co-star of the third season of Stranger Things. The rest of the cast includes Molly Gordon (Booksmart), Suki Waterhouse (Detective Pikachu), and the lovely, legendary Bernadette Peters.
It’s a movie geared more towards an audience of people who empathize with and respect those around them. The sort of people with the desire to consciously support a woman filmmaker (in this case writer/director Natalie Krinsky) on the occasion of her feature debut. But it’s also a movie that appeals more to a younger crowd, not unlike Mighty Oak. Teens and people in their early twenties have apparently been less likely to wear masks when congregating in public lately, so younger moviegoers may not be concerned with — or could even prefer — there being no requirement.
Neither of these movies has a real luring power, though, aside from just existing at a time when some Americans will be anxious to go back to normal, including the pastime of going to the movies, and ready just to see anything on the big screen. AMC has cited the successful re-opening of its theaters in Norway, where they’ve seen a majority of available tickets sold, as proof that movie fans are yearning to go back. Norway has done a decent job with containing the coronavirus, and even there movie theaters are not requiring patrons to wear face masks.
Tenet, on the other hand, is a movie that, prior to the coronavirus threat, topped many lists of most-anticipated 2020 releases. The interest in Nolan’s sci-fi feature is significantly higher than anything coming out in the preceding weeks, so I have a hard time believing either theaters or the public will get a proper idea of what moviegoing will be like then from the weeks leading up to July 17th with such titles as Unhinged and The Broken Hearts Gallery. Everything beforehand is just shallow water compared to that deep-end of a movie.
Tenet‘s studio, Warner Bros., and all the cinema chains eager to start making money again need to be patient regarding its grosses and keep crowds low and slow at first. A lot of people who are excited about the movie are not excited about the risk, and they’ll be watching its opening from afar to see not its box office figures but its impact on cases linked to movie theater attendance. Even then, there are plenty who won’t be going anywhere like a cinema before a COVID-19 vaccine exists. Contrary to the industry’s hopes, moviegoing won’t be normal in a month or anytime soon.