Coronavirus accelerates decline of movie theaters

The coronavirus pandemic may be the last nail in the coffin for a beloved American pastime: going to the movies. Theaters were already suffering major financial losses before the pandemic, and now their future looks increasingly unstable.

Attendance has been on the decline for a quarter-century. AMC, the nation’s largest chain, reported $149 million in losses in 2019, in addition to a more than $5 billion deficit, according to S&P Global. Regal Cinemas — the second largest — recently laid off 24,000 employees with no severance pay.

From March 13 to 15, the weekend before AMC and Regal closed their theaters nationwide, domestic box office sales were $54.7 million- a decline of 46 percent from the previous weekend and 60 percent less than the previous year according to Forbes.

Some smaller theaters and chains are offering curbside pickup for popcorn, and AMC’s on-demand streaming service is still available. But neither is enough to make up for the lost revenue.

AMC is denying rumors of impending bankruptcy amidst uncertainty about when theaters – or any non-essential businesses – will be able to reopen. Another unknown is how quickly consumers battered by unemployment and fear of an invisible enemy will return to their seats.

AMC Tamiami 18 theater manager Anthony Gomez, who’s taken up jobs with Uber Eats and Postmates since the theater closed, said attendance bounce-back will depend on two factors: whether people will have enough discretionary income to spend on entertainment and whether they will feel comfortable in such a crowded environment.

“It depends on whether [theaters] start limiting the number of people that are allowed in for at least the first couple of months, take time to actually detail clean during operational hours, and if people really want to spend money on tickets,” said Gomez. “It also depends on if studios will continue straight to home releases.”

Gomez believes that if proper steps are taken to prevent the spread of the virus everyone should feel comfortable in theaters, but recognizes that it may take some time to adjust to this new way of life.

“That’s most likely a topic they are discussing right now in corporate. People will always be worried about sanitation when it comes to theaters due to the amount of people that sit in the seats. The virus just increases that worry, but if AMC really enforces the new policy and procedures I think customers will be more relaxed coming in after this is over,” said Gomez.

In a recent non-scientific poll conducted on Instagram, 44 percent of respondents indicated that they plan to go to the movies more frequently than they did before the coronavirus pandemic began. 58 percent said they prefer the movie theater experience in general while 42 percent preferred streaming. When asked if they could envision a world without movie theaters, 80 percent said no.

Virginia Bonilla, an AMC Stubs A-List member, was relieved to find out that membership fees have been paused until the theaters are back up and running, but said she’s likely to cancel hers.

“I might suspend my membership because, even if the quarantine is lifted, unless I’m assured that the theaters are working on sanitizing everything, I feel like it would be unsafe,” said Bonilla. “I think [employees] should wear a mask and gloves and everyone going into the theater should as well. [The theater should also keep] up with the CDC’s guidelines for sanitizing and disinfecting different surfaces.”

Even with such protective measures, it might be a while before Bonilla returns. “I feel that if the quarantine is lifted, it’s not because it’s safe to do so but to keep businesses alive,” she said.