Movie theaters were not built for social distancing

If things had gone as planned for 2020, this weekend’s new releases would include “The Forever Purge,” the fifth installment in the dystopian action-horror “Purge” series.

Can you even imagine watching a dystopian film in a movie theater right now? It would be opening against “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” a generational reboot with much of the original “Ghostbusters” cast.

Those movies are now slated for release on July 9, 2021, and March 5, 2021, respectively. To be honest, even that may be a bit optimistic.

The most pressing issue in the industry is how to open movie theaters safely in a pandemic, which frankly sounds like an oxymoron. I’m imagining a "sold-out" theater at 30 percent capacity. I like a nice empty Sunday matinee, but movie theaters were not built for social distancing.

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And the theaters themselves are obviously the immediate victims. Drive-ins were the first to return, and small neighborhood theaters are reopening with classic releases.

Two weeks ago, the No. 1 and No. 2 movies at the box office were “Jurassic Park” and “Jaws.” These are strange times, indeed.

AMC Theaters, the country’s largest theater chain, has pushed back their reopening date until late July, in part because of the delays in the big studio releases they count on to fill seats.

Some tentpole releases like “F9,” the latest installment in the “Fast and the Furious” series, gave up on summer early, shifting to 2021 releases. Others are still vying for a slice of the traditional summer audience but have found their timelines shifting again and again.

Perhaps most notable is Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” a sci-fi epic the filmmaker has been determined to show on the big screen. It was originally slated for release on July 17, then optimistically pushed all the way back to … July 31. (Those two weeks should be enough to get COVID-19 under control, right?) Then, just this week, "Tenet" was delayed another two weeks. Am I any more optimistic about being in a crowded movie theater in mid-August?

Keep in mind, moving these big-budget movies to VOD releases would mean losing millions, so Hollywood is still counting on theaters, even if no one has any idea what that will look like.

Oh, and another wrinkle: Since film production is also effectively shut down, we may well have a mostly blank year on the theatrical landscape. Even the 2022 schedule is already full of releases pushed back from 2021.

It looks like it may be a long time before we have another collective theater experience like “Jurassic Park.” Hold on to your butts.