LONDON, England—Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, a time-traveling spy thriller, was released in late August hoping to turn back time to when theaters were packed with patrons munching on popcorn. They never came.
Hoping to alleviate fears of public gathering in theaters, Nolan steadfastly insisted that Tenet be seen as he intended—on the largest screen possible. But the returns reinforced those fears: a paltry $45.1 million domestically and a worldwide haul of $307 million weren’t encouraging for the $200 million flick. In normal times, this would constitute an unmitigated disaster; but in pandemic times, it was a modest success.
But it wasn’t enough to save the second-largest theater chain in America. On Monday, Cineworld, the parent company of Regal Cinemas, declared it was temporarily closing its 663 theaters in the United States and Britain.
The final nail in the coffin was the delay of the new James Bond film, “No Time to Die” from November until next year. With Marvel’s “Black Widow” also pushed to 2021, and no big-budget tentpoles on the horizon, Cineworld felt they had no choice but to close.
Closing the theaters a little over a month after previously opening is affecting 40,000 employees in the United States and 5,000 more in Britain. An already struggling U.S. economy is now further burdened by the loss of more service industry jobs.
John Fithian, chief executive of the National Association of Theatre Owners, decried studios’ decisions to delay movies: “If the studios continue postponing all their releases, the movie theaters aren’t going to be there for those postponed releases…They have to consider whether they want the long-term viability of the theater platform to be available to them. And I think they do since about 80 percent of the movies that were scheduled during our closed period have been postponed for future theatrical release and not taken to the home.”
The effects of the pandemic on theater chains are drastic. Comparing this past weekend to the same weekend from a year ago illustrates the stark financial differences: theaters generated a minuscule $12 million in box office receipts. Last year, “Joker” alone made $96.2 million to go along with $150 million in total.
After the announcement, Cineworld’s stock cratered by 60 percent when the stock market opened in London on Monday. It ended the day down 25 percent. In addition to the stock plummeting, in September, Cineworld reported a pretax loss of $1.6 billion for the first half of 2020.
The closure of Cineworld is the latest blow to one of America’s greatest cultural exports. Visions of families large and small, with snack and drinks in hand, reclining and gasping, cheering and clapping at the screen—seem like relics of a bygone era. Is an American cultural institution dying? Let’s hope not, but it seems to be on life support.
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