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The future of movie theaters is grim

<p>Pandemics and streaming services leave the future of theaters and box office numbers up in the air.</p>

Pandemics and streaming services leave the future of theaters and box office numbers up in the air.

Last winter, I saw “Cats,” “Frozen II,” “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” “Emma” and “1917” in theaters. My goal for the year was to see a movie every other weekend in 2020, and for the first couple, I was well ahead of schedule.

After seeing “1917” for the second time in February, I slowed down. My friends were apparently not as enthusiastic about wasting money on overpriced popcorn and slushies as I was.

Then the theater industry slowed down with me.

Then they stopped releasing movies in theaters entirely.

I admit when COVID-19 appeared to be on the decline in September, I was one of the first people to see “Tenet.” It was the first major tentpole release since March, the movie that would save the box office from total collapse if headlines were to be believed. The theater was practically empty, the sound much louder than I remembered.

The movie earned just $20.2 million domestically in its first weekend. It cost $200 million to produce before marketing.

Every major studio balked at the results of “Tenet.” What had been a full roster of releases through the fourth quarter soon resembled the summer as movies jumped ship to spring 2021.

Now, studios are wavering again in the face of the pandemic. MGM’s “No Time To Die” led the way as it fled from April 2 to Oct. 8. Other releases promptly followed suit, opting to premiere on streaming services or push back once more to summer and fall. Less than half of all theaters in the U.S. are open for business, and revenue is down 90% from this time last year with no movies to screen.

I’ll be shocked if the theater industry survives another year of COVID-19. Warner Bros is releasing every movie in theaters and on HBO Max concurrently for at least the next year. Universal Studios has strong-armed theater chains to shorten the exhibition window to only four weeks in theaters before they can stream their movies.

Disney can’t seem to pick its go-to strategy. The company released “Mulan” on Disney+ with a $30 access charge in September, while promising a theatrical release for Pixar’s “Soul” in November. But after the lukewarm opening of “Tenet,” “Soul” moved to Disney+ as well, minus the fee.

Now, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is also set to release on Disney+, and the $30 price tag has returned. “Black Widow” is still set to debut in theaters May 7, but whether it sticks the landing is up in the air.

For many, the death of the theater industry may not seem like a big deal. It’s been years in the making with the rise of streaming services -— the pandemic just sped the process along.

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Mentally, I accept the change. Streaming is cheaper, more convenient and more accessible for everyone (for real, why don’t theaters have subtitles yet?). After years of spending every weekend reading box office receipts and guessing what the highest grossing movie each month and year would be, though, I can’t help but view the end of theaters as a terrible loss.

Sure, the popcorn is overpriced, and you run the risk of a little kid kicking the back of your seat and screaming every time you go. If the theater in my hometown closes, though, there won’t be anything left to do but shop at Target and find new back roads to explore.

“Avengers: Endgame” grossed $357 million in America during its opening weekend in 2019. That’s nearly 39 million tickets sold. Other than election days and Super Bowls, what other events get people together on that scale?

Obviously it isn’t safe right now to go to theaters. The box office reflects that. From April to December, the domestic market made less than $400 million, a total “Endgame” passed on its fifth day in theaters. 

There’s going to be a time after the pandemic, though. I just hope, when that time comes, we’ll remember how the moviegoing experience brought people together. When we get to phase 17 of the MCU or Star Wars Episode XLIV, I hope it’s on the big screen.