Exactly one year ago, on March 19, as this brand new thing called "COVID-19" forced movie theaters in New Mexico to shut their doors, Albuquerque's Icon Cinema posted the following message on its Facebook page: "Hello Icon Fans! We are currently closed, see you at the movies April 10th!" That final message proved to be a bit too optimistic. Some 365 days later, and Icon—along with all the other movie theaters in New Mexico—remains closed. But the post could still prove prophetic. Could our state's movie theaters open their doors by April 10, 2021?
In all the vocal complaints about the closing of bars and restaurants across New Mexico, our state's movie theaters have been something of a silent victim. While restaurants have opened and closed with varying percentages of seating, both indoor and outdoor, "nonessential indoor entertainment" such as movie theaters weren't even given a mention in the state's re-opening plans until Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham's Feb. 24 addendum. That tweak to the New Mexico Health Department's Red-to-Green COVID guidelines now lays out a path to public movie screenings. Indoor/enclosed space entertainment facilities can open at 33 percent capacity if a county reaches the new "Turquoise" level. That translates to "a new COVID-19 case incidence rate of no greater than eight cases per 100,000 inhabitants during the most recent four-week period, and an average percent of positive COVID-19 test results over the most recent four-week period less than or equal to 5 percent."
Those new criteria tell us the public health benchmarks that need to be passed in order for local movie theaters to consider returning. But the lingering questions remain: What do movie theaters need to reopen? The answer is twofold: Theaters need audiences, and they need product. If Bernalillo County spends the next four weeks at Green level, theaters could theoretically open in April under Turquoise status. But will audiences actually return—even when capped at a slender 33 percent?
New Mexico is one of the few places that movie theaters remain shuttered by official health orders. New York and Los Angeles, the country's two largest movie-going markets, finally allowed theaters to reopen last week. Despite the lifting of restrictions and the promise of vigilant sterilization methods, few theaters have proved to be a heavy draw for cooped-up Americans. Last weekend's domestic box office topper, Raya and the Last Dragon, pulled in $15.5 million dollars on 2,045 screens. Back in pandemic-free 2019, the box office winner for this 11th week of the year was Captain Marvel, which opened on 4,310 screens and made $68 million. Granted, Raya and the Last Dragon isn't as big a box office draw as Captain Marvel.
Which brings us to the second part of the equation: product. If audiences aren't flocking to theaters, major movie studios will have a hard time recouping money on the sort of splashy, $200 million dollar blockbusters that populate the spring and summer box office. And even if they do flock, they'll be limited—for the foreseeable future—to between 25 and 50 percent capacity at most theater chains across America. That puts a pretty significant cap on box office receipts.
Throughout all of 2019, movie studios played a game of chicken: Announcing film release dates and then retracting them when COVID restrictions remained in place. Some studios, like Disney, gave up and filtered product direct to their streaming video services. (Mulan, Soul and Raya and the Last Dragon were all available on Disney+—either free to subscribers or with a "premium" rental fee.) Warner Bros. started sending its theatrical releases (Wonder Woman 1984, The Little Things, King Kong vs. Godzilla) to HBO Max. Films that have not shown up on streaming, like United Artists' latest James Bond outing, No Time To Die, are still in some sort of limbo, tentatively lined up for "fall 2021."
Speaking about the upcoming release of Marvel's long-delayed superhero movie Black Widow (originally slated to hit theaters in May of 2020, now eyeing May 7, 2021), Disney CEO Bob Chapek said in an interview on CNBC, "Just a few weeks ago theaters in New York and Los Angeles weren't even open, and now all of a sudden they're open. So we're waiting to see exactly how guests respond, prospective theater-goers respond, to these re-openings. And we're going to remain flexible. We're going to make the call essentially, probably, at the last minute in terms of how these films come to market."
"The last 12 months there hasn't been much of a theater business," admits Samson Snell, owner and operator of that Icon Cinema in Albuquerque's 4 Hills Village, which has been dark since last March. "Even with the states that are open, the movie studios have held up their big movie releases until more states have opened up."
This boils down to a simple catch-22: Audiences won't come back to theaters if there isn't enough product, and there won't be enough product if audiences don't come back to theaters. Not that the movie studios are hurting, exactly. It's taken a bit of time for stay-at-home folks to acclimate themselves to forking over $30 to watch a film from their couch. But for the most part, they have. Disney+ went from 70 million subscribers at the start of 2020 to 95 million subscribers at the start of 2021. Over on HBO Max, Wonder Woman 1984 broke the streaming record on its "opening release," with 554,000 new downloads on Christmas Day. Netflix's historical Hollywood drama Mank topped this year's Oscar nominations with 10—despite never seeing the inside of a movie theater.
Although home box office receipts aren't quite as explosive as theatrical box office receipts, studios aren't complaining too much. Streaming at home cuts out the middle man. Studios and distributors don't have to fork out a percentage of their profits to movie theaters, which are owned by other corporations. As long as you release it on your own streaming service (Warner Bros. = HBO Max, Paramount = Paramount+, Disney, Marvel, Pixar, LucasFilm = Disney+), "vertical integration" keeps all the money in your own corporate coffers.
The last 12 months have been ones of innovation, adaptation, resiliency and good old-fashioned belt-tightening for American businesses. And movie theaters have been no different. "Business is hard in general, and not being able to operate at all makes it impossible for any business," says Snell, whose regional, family-run Icon Cinema group operates screens in Albuquerque, Colorado Springs and Laredo. "No revenue coming in and expenses going out every month. Many independent operators like ours are out of business for good, leaving the industry with more of just the big corporate players and less independent operators."
Albuquerque's two second-run theaters, Movies West and Movies 8 (both owned by the nationwide Cinemark chain) already shut down and have been gutted of their movie equipment. And it's possible more could follow. Keif Henley, owner of Nob Hill's longtime independent art house theater, Guild Cinema, has kept his business alive through virtual online screenings, which give a percentage of the fees they charge to movie theaters. He's also relied on "grants, in-kind donations, laying off staff till we get to reopen as we were pre-COVID-19 and private facilities rental at limited patronage."
At the end of the day, Americans can't imagine a world without movies and popcorn. One odd byproduct of this darkening of movie screens has been the return of the drive-in theater. Unable to gather audience members indoors, seated next to one another for two hours and breathing recirculated air, a few savvy entrepreneurs have revived the concept of outdoor theaters. Our state is suddenly awash with movie theaters that allow people to watch films from the comfort of their own automobile. Drive-In Movies at Albuquerque's Balloon Fiesta Park has been operating, on and off, since last summer. On March 31 it will premiere Godzilla vs. Kong, the same day-and-date the film premieres on HBO Max. The Badlands Drive-In was recently constructed at the site of the old BMX track on Highway 314 in Las Lunas. It opened to the public in early February and shows a slate of mostly older films (Footloose, Back to the Future). The village of Tijeras opened up its new Park and View Drive-In, just off Route 66 behind the village hall at the end of February. Classics like Forrest Gump and The Goonies make up its programming.
Violet Crown Cinema in Santa Fe has taken a different route. The theater reopened on March 19. With Santa Fe County in Green, the theater is allowing families or groups of friends to rent out screens in what the chain is calling "RSVP Cinema." For $50 to $100, between 1 and 13 people can have their own private movie screening. Viewers can choose between 100 "classic" films and a small handful of current releases. Patrons are even encouraged to bring their own DVDs or VHS tapes.
Hopefully, the state's new rules governing indoor recreation and a general downward trend in COVID numbers means Albuquerque won't go another summer without movies. The Guild Cinema, which specializes in foreign and independent films and doesn't have to compete for those blockbusters that are increasingly turning up on home streaming services, is already preparing for the day it can open its doors. "We’ve got plexiglass up in our concessions area, extra masks and disposable gloves available. And we’re looking into an efficient filtration system for our refrigerated air cooler that will block out COVID-19 particles and other viruses from being recycled," assures owner/projectionist/chief cook and bottle washer Henley. "We’ve also mapped out how to fit 26 people safely, plus we’ve got extra cleaning supplies to disinfect in between shows. We’re anticipating fair attendance in relation to the initial 25 percent state government-mandated capacity has listed in its 'Green' zone designation."
"I'm optimist about the post-COVID world," says Mr. Snell, speculating on the future of his business and the stability of the entire industry. "I think we will all appreciate being able to be out of our house and enjoying entertainment with our loved ones more than ever. We all deserve it in the post-COVID world, and I look forward to hosting guests again."
So cross your fingers, wear your masks, get your vaccines and we'll see you at the movies.
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