Lights, camera, action? How movie theatres, studios are struggling to

After more than three months of empty seats and silent popcorn machines, movie theatres — which sustained a dramatic hit when the Canadian economy shut down due to COVID-19 — are getting ready for their closeup. 

Both Cineplex and Landmark Cinemas, Canada’s two largest movie theatre chains, plan to partly reopen in British Columbia and Alberta on June 26, after being closed since mid-March. Their reopening comes alongside a number of independent theatres in those provinces, with locations to the east hoping to return to business in early to mid-July.

But those reopenings come with a big catch, as theatres weren’t the only part of the movie industry forced to alter their plans once the global pandemic struck earlier this year. With the summer blockbuster season approaching and audiences still largely stuck at home, movie studios started pushing their titles back — whether by weeks, months or even into next year. 

That’s left a lot of speculation surrounding what audiences will actually see on the marquee once theatre doors actually open again.

“If we’ve seen anything over this pandemic, it’s that nothing is nailed down,” said Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations Co. in Los Angeles. “Everything really is TBD, depending on what happens week to week.”

Those changes have hardly slowed down, either. Movie studios Warner Bros., Sony Pictures and Universal had Wonder Woman 1984, Morbius and F9, respectively, slated to kick off the 2020 summer blockbuster season. Now, Wonder Woman is set to premiere in October, while Morbius and F9 have moved all the way back to March and April of 2021.

Many others — James Bond instalment No Time to Die, Pixar’s Soul, the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights and more — received the same treatment. Studios, Bock said, are grappling with the potential reward of being one of the few big productions actually available in theatres versus the risk of audiences not wanting to visit a theatre over health concerns.

“It’s hard to say what the consumers are going to do,” Bock said. “And it really is up to ticket buyers whether this is going to work or not.”

Uncertain schedules

Whether it works out or not, Bock said, will most likely be decided in the first few weeks after theatres reopen. That’s when movie-goers will see what’s on offer and how well theatres are adapting.

The early reopenings in Western Canada — Landmark says it hopes to open theatres in Manitoba and Saskatchewan by July 3 or at the latest — come before any major cinematic releases. As it stands, the earliest big-picture premiere is the Russell Crowe thriller Unhinged for July, followed by A24’s Saint Maud and The Broken Hearts Gallery starring Selena Gomez.

That leaves a gap for theatres to fill. Sarah Van Lange, executive director of communications for Cineplex, said it will likely show previously released titles for the first few weeks, though decisions are still being made…

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