Once Bernalillo County hit the coveted “Turquoise” status on the New Mexico Department of Health’s Red to Green COVID framework in early May, Albuquerque’s close-contact indoor entertainment venues were allowed to open at 33 percent capacity. That was enough (barely) to encourage movie theaters to fire up their projectors and pull back the curtains on their long-dark screens. The locally owned, single-screen Guild Cinema in Nob Hill was the first to reopen. The nationally owned Cinemark chain unlocked the 24-screen Century Rio and soon followed suit with its Century Downtown location. The 12-screen AMC Classic in southwestern Albuquerque is also selling tickets again. Regal Cinemas, the last major holdout on reopening theaters nationwide, finally surrendered this last weekend, opening its three Albuquerque locations—Winrock, High Ridge and Cottonwood—on May 21. For better or worse, the pre-post-pandemic film industry is back in business!
According to Keif Henley, owner and operator of Guild Cinema, audiences have been “pretty mild” since reopening. The Guild, which specializes in foreign and independent films, has just over 100 seats. Under current restrictions, less than 40 people are allowed inside at one time. That makes it hard to turn a profit—particularly in the wake of all the health and safety upgrades Henley has had to make. Most recently, he added a UV light to his building’s HVAC system—which set his business back an addition $1,500.
Cineworld, the owners of Cinemark (Century/CinéArts/Tinseltown/Rave), have promised the usual COVID precautions: sanitization of theaters between shows, limited tickets sales, social distancing in the lobby, cashless transactions and mask enforcement when patrons are not eating or drinking inside theaters. Theaters are open and theoretically safe. But booking new films may be the next hurdle to clear. Hollywood movie studios, which provide the product multiplexes use to fill their screens, are busy wrestling with the challenge of pulling ticket sales from the pockets of patrons still wary of public events and increasingly acclimatized to pay-per-view, stream-at-home films.
Movie theaters are worried that movie studios like Warner Bros., Disney and Paramount, which own their own corporate streaming services (HBO Max, Disney+ and Parmount+), are less dependent on theatrical releasing. As a result, theaters have spent the last year scrambling to sign exclusive deals with those studios. The goal is to lengthen the “window” between theatrical screenings and home viewing. Late last year Warner Bros. announced all of its 2021 slate would hit “day and date,” as the industry calls it. WB films such as Godzilla vs. Kong and Those Who Wish Me Dead are now available for movie theaters and home streaming at the same time. The same goes for Disney (Raya and The Last Dragon) and Netflix (Army of the Dead). Beginning in 2022, though, WarnerMedia has agreed to give Cineworld an exclusive 45-day window to show its movies before they’re released to streaming. AMC Theaters, meanwhile, scrambled to sign its own exclusive deal with Universal Pictures for a three-week exclusive window. Paramount announced earlier this year a 45-day theatrical window for its event films (A Quiet Place Part II, Mission: Impossible 7) and a shorter 30-day window for smaller films. After these windows end, all Paramount films move to streaming via ViacomCBS’ Paramount+. In the pre-pandemic world, windows between theater and home viewing (formerly via VHS/DVD, now primarily VOD/streaming) were at least 90 days.
“The cinemas lost their bargaining power when they had to close,” points out Samson Snell, whose family-run Icon chain operates just three theaters in New Mexico and Texas. He hopes to open Albuquerque’s Icon Cinema in Four Hills “by the end of this month or the beginning of next.” But will he and other theater managers be able to book enough A-list blockbusters to compete with today’s home streaming market? And will audiences show up? This summer’s box office will tell.