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Will people return to movie theaters? Why the box office's future looks bright

Once everything is deemed safe, don't be surprised if people once again flood movie theaters.
Movie Theaters Closed in Mass.
An empty movie theater in Methuen, Massachusetts, on March 29, 2020.Jim Davis / Boston Globe/Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

From first dates to family outings, a night at the movies is as steeped in Americana as buttered popcorn and coming attractions, but it’s one of many rituals that has hit pause while businesses close in response to the coronavirus.

The status of the movie theater, like so many industries at the moment, is in limbo. The thought of sitting in an enclosed space with strangers seems anathema right now, and whether consumers will return when the current pandemic ends, and we are given the go-ahead to resume our lives, is a cliffhanger for the film industry.

“My sense is that people will be very happy to go back to normal and if they enjoyed seeing movies in the movie theater before the pandemic they will be very happy to return to normal afterward and to kind of cling to those things that they enjoyed without much thought prior,” Dr. Marney White, clinical psychologist and associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Yale School of Public Health, told TODAY. “I think that they will become even more enjoyable and more cherished when this is all over.”

New York City during the the COVID-19 pandemic
This theater in Brooklyn, New York offers words of hope on April 1, 2020.Andrew Lichtenstein / Getty Images

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AMC Theatres, which has more than 1,000 theaters, is reportedly on the brink of bankruptcy, while several recent releases were made available on different streaming platforms. Assuming the coronavirus no longer poses a risk, White believes the lure of the cinematic experience will continue to entice consumers.

“It’s kind of the magic of the movie theater, people like the smell of popcorn, they like the dark theater and the big screen and the loud volume and the collective community experience of watching in a big theater with strangers and kind of enjoying the crowd response,” White said.

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for global media measurement company Comscore, estimates North American theaters bring in $600-$700 million in a slow month and the first part of 2020 was going strong before theaters closed, which created an immense economic vacuum for the film industry. Despite what has already transpired, Dergarabedian is also optimistic while noting that theaters will remain cautious when they do open again.

People buying food at the cinema before watching a movie
When will people return to movie theaters and enjoy stocking up on snacks before catching the latest blockbuster?Getty Images stock

“I think it’s going to be a methodical, well thought out and strategic process,” he told TODAY. “You don’t want to just open the doors and say, ‘Hey, come right back in.’"

“Once the all clear is given, I think people will be very excited to go back, but with the obvious eye towards being safe and healthy and cautious and it’ll take time to build that consumer confidence,” he added. "I think it’ll come back. We’ve seen in past years; the 1918 pandemic was followed by the Roaring ‘20s.”

The film is industry is big business. According to data from the National Association of Theatre Owners, there were 5,548 cinema sites and 40,613 indoor screens in 2019. The group reports U.S. and Canada grossed $11.4 billion last year. Globally, the box office tallied a record $42.2 billion last year, according to the 2019 THEME Report, a study produced by the Motion Picture Association.

When reached by TODAY via email about how theaters may respond after re-opening and what measures they may take to entice customers, a spokesman for NATO called the matter “premature” and did not elaborate.

While some people may be apprehensive, Americans may welcome the chance to get back to the lives they once knew.

“I think there will be some people who have anxiety that will subside when the evidence accumulates that says things are OK, once the curve truly flattens and more and more things are able to get back to normal,” White said.

Empty cinema screen with audience.
Moviegoers settle in to see a film.Getty Images stock

There’s also a narrative that on demand and streaming services may become the standard for the movie experience. Video on demand increased 23% from February to March, reports Comscore and watching at home presents the ultimate in social distancing. Dergarabedian isn’t sold on the idea.

“I’m loathe to make any big pronouncements about anything, as many people are making big pronouncements about the streaming and home video component taking over the entire space. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think both have lived side by side very well,” he said.

The movie theater experience may also be one that’s hard to top.

“It’s that exclusivity of the movie theater that gives movies that prestige and want to see factor. It makes people want to go out to see them,” Dergarabedian said.

And while the theater business, like many other industries, may have hit a rough patch, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.

“2021 can be one of the biggest years ever, assuming this clears because the amount of big movies, franchises that have been pushed to that year is incredible,” Dergarabedian said. “People will be so excited. It will be a huge comeback for the movie theater.”