Real talk: The theater experience may not survive the pandemic

Brad Keefe
"No Time to Die"

A couple of weekends ago, I saw my first new release on a big screen in seven months.

Three friends and I went to South Drive-In to see “Possessor,” the surreal and totally bonkers debut film from Brandon Cronenberg, son of director David Cronenberg. We took two cars, masks on, windows down, set out some chairs in our parking spot and got to enjoy the communal experience I’ve missed all year.

It felt a little normal, but also anything but. In a normal year, I’m sitting in a movie theater a minimum of once a week. It’s been this way for as long as I can remember. Now I’m honestly not sure that’s coming back ever — at least not on the level we remember.

In what’s widely seen as the last nail in the coffin for the 2020 theatrical season, MGM announced earlier this month that its latest James Bond film, “No Time to Die,” would have its theatrical release pushed back from November 2020 to April 2021, a full year after the originally scheduled release date.

And director Cary Fukunaga said in an interview this week that he hasn’t ruled out further delays, saying, “The film will come out when it’s right.”

Exhibitors were hoping for at least one more potential tentpole release. Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” remains the only major studio release that went through with a “normal” theater-only release.

Next week will see the release of a sequel to “Borat” arriving exclusively on Amazon Prime, another movie that will forever miss the experience of hearing an uproarious crowd laughing along.

This week, Paramount sold the Eddie Murphy sequel “Coming 2 America” (“2!” Get it?) to Amazon for $125 million, foregoing another planned theatrical release.

I realize this is a lot of wonky inside pool, but theater exhibitors and movie studios have long engaged in a complicated calculus around windows of theatrical release. That’s what keeps theaters afloat, even the big chains.

Regal Cinemas suspended its U.S. operations earlier this month. AMC Theaters is reportedly considering bankruptcy, even as it has navigated novel ideas like allowing patrons to rent an entire screening room for $99.

This also comes as consumers are upping their home-theater game, which would likely undercut theaters long term. Sales of 65-inch televisions are climbing during the pandemic.

And Disney just announced a major restructuring around a focus on streaming, the same week it moved the upcoming Pixar release “Soul” to a Disney+ release on Christmas Day. If we see Disney decide to release “Black Widow” to Disney+, consider that the day the cat is never going back in the bag.

My love will always be for independent theaters, which seem at least better suited to an environment less dependent on big-budget blockbusters. But the death of the entire theater experience may be a victim of this pandemic.

The new normal is anything but.