The biggest US movie-theater trade group says it's optimistic about a return to normalcy in the spring, but many consumers are wary

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The biggest US movie-theater trade group says it's optimistic about a return to normalcy in the spring, but many consumers are wary
An AMC theater in Burbank, California in April.Associated Press
  • Congress passed a pandemic relief bill on Monday that included $15 billion in grants for independent movie theaters, but does not include relief for large theater chains.
  • The National Association of Theatre Owners praised the bill and president John Fithian said that there's "a very real chance that our business can begin to return to normal in the spring." But the organization will continue to seek help for large chains.
  • The reality may be that the road to recovery for US movie theaters will be longer than theater owners anticipate.
  • Recent surveys by Morning Consult and the consulting firm Deloitte found that the majority of respondents did not feel comfortable returning to a theater for another six months or more.

The US movie-theater industry got some much-needed good news on Monday when Congress passed a $900 billion pandemic relief bill that included $15 billion in grants for independent theaters and live-entertainment venues.

The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), the largest movie-theater trade group that represents thousands of theaters across the country, praised the bill in a statement. The organization's president, John Fithian, said: "With multiple vaccines beginning to roll out, we see a bright light at the end of a very dark tunnel. There is a very real chance that our business can begin to return to normal in the spring."

But the stimulus package doesn't include relief for large theater chains like AMC Theatres and Cinemark, which remain open amid the pandemic. Other chains, like Regal and Cineworld, have closed all locations in the US and UK.

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NATO said it would continue to seek help for these chains.

But the reality is that movie theaters in the US won't return to any sense of normalcy until audiences are actually prepared to return. And that may be later than what theaters owners are hoping for.

The biggest US movie-theater trade group says it's optimistic about a return to normalcy in the spring, but many consumers are wary
Marvel's "Black Widow" is still set to hit theaters in May.Marvel Studios

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, said last week that the US could return to some sense of normalcy by mid-fall 2021. But that's if 75%-85% of the population has received the vaccine by then.

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In a Morning Consult survey of 2,200 US adults released on Monday, 51% of respondents said they would not feel comfortable returning to a movie theater for another six months or more. Just 26% of respondents feel comfortable returning within the next three months and 23% weren't sure.

That is roughly in line with an October poll of 1,100 US consumers by the consulting firm Deloitte, in which 52% of respondents said they did not feel comfortable returning to a theater for another six months or more. 19% weren't sure at the time. And coronavirus cases have spiked across the country since then.

Still, it doesn't necessarily spell doom for theaters, as 35% of respondents to the Deloitte poll said they would prefer to watch a movie at a theater if it were released simultaneously on a streaming service at the same price. 42% said they would prefer to stay home and watch on the streaming service, even if the pandemic were over. And 23% said they would consider both equally.

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The seeming reluctance by US consumers to return to movie theaters during the next six months shows potential for Warner Bros.' plan to release its entire 2021 theatrical slate on the HBO Max streaming service (at no extra cost) simultaneously with theaters. The move, which has rankled many in Hollywood, suggests that parent company WarnerMedia is not optimistic about theaters returning to normalcy soon.

Other movie studios are taking a hybrid approach to the uncertainty. Disney is releasing some movies straight to Disney Plus, such as Pixar's "Soul," while holding out for others in theaters, like "Black Widow." Universal has struck deals with some major theater chains to shorten the theatrical window to in most cases 17 days, at which point they can release movies to digital-rental platforms.

Whatever approach movie studios take, however, it is clear that for the industry to return to any sense of normalcy, consumers will have to be comfortable returning to theaters. Once that happens, the industry will see how many of the pandemic-related changes Hollywood has made were temporary, and how many have become the new normal.

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