Last summer, those of us who love going to the movies sat quietly in our homes and dreamed about summer 2021: that mythical post-pandemic time when everything would be back to normal and we could sit in the dark and watch a blockbuster movie on an enormous screen.
Well, summer 2021 is almost here, the multiplexes are open and the blockbusters are on their way ... but things aren't quite normal.
Most but not all movie theaters have reopened to some degree. And as vaccination rates tick up, more of us may be feeling comfortable returning to in-person screenings. I'm looking forward to seeing a movie in a theater later in May, after I'm fully vaccinated — for the first time in more than a year. (You might see me; I'll be the woman on the aisle who quite possibly passes out from the intensity — and the joy — of the experience.)
What we'll find, when we return to the theaters, will be different, and not just in obvious ways like mask-wearing, distant seating and whiffs of disinfectant: The strategy for bringing movies to theaters has changed, perhaps permanently. The coronavirus pandemic hit the movie business hard, causing numerous 2020 releases to be postponed (some to as far as 2022) or released for streaming only — and some movie studios, worried that people might be reluctant to embrace in-person cinema again, are hedging their bets this summer.
Warner Bros., for example, announced last year that all of its 2021 slate would come out simultaneously in theaters and on its streaming service, HBO Max. Disney, likewise, is releasing some of its summer hits simultaneously on its own service, Disney+ (often in the Premier Access tier, which requires an extra rental fee). This means that some of this summer's biggest movies — "In the Heights," "Space Jam: A New Legacy," "The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It" for WB; "Black Widow" and "Cruella" for Disney — can be watched at home instantly, without waiting for the traditional theatrical window. And at least one major summer movie, Disney/Pixar's animated adventure "Luca," is bypassing theaters entirely, available only on Disney+.
This is bad news for movie theater operators, who depend on first-run fare to bring audiences in, but potentially good for those not yet ready to venture out — or who may have found, during a pandemic year, that watching movies from home suited them fine. Movie theaters have had to get creative during a time of lost revenue, offering private cinema rentals (which can be surprisingly affordable) or special events like Cinema Week, a six-day event in June designed to encourage moviegoing.
While the large chains — AMC, Regal, Cinemark — have reopened, many locally owned theaters remain closed, and may stay that way for months to come. For example, Seattle independent moviehouses like Northwest Film Forum, Grand Illusion and The Beacon have not yet reopened their doors (except, in some cases, for private rentals).
For the few that have reopened it's been a challenging season so far. "Business has been terrible," said David McRae, owner of the Ark Lodge in Columbia City, Washington, which reopened in late February and is now showing movies Thursdays through Sundays. He cited the necessity of having audience members widely spaced (which translated to, in his small four-plex, no more than 15 to 25 people per theater), and a current lack of the kind of movies that would excite large numbers of cinemagoers. For now, private rentals and concessions (which now include chocolate popcorn, in the style of the much-lamented Cinerama) are the bulk of the theater's business.
McRae is concerned about the trend of new releases being immediately available for streaming — "it's been a real kick in the gut." But he's invested in pandemic-related updates to his theater (including a new air-scrubbing system), and is hopeful about the upcoming summer season, pointing to a welcome glut of potential blockbusters and to numbers that show more and more people expressing confidence in returning to theaters. (A recent NRG poll showed 64% of moviegoers are "very or somewhat comfortable" with going to the cinema, a number that's been rising in recent weeks.)
So this will be a summer movie season of options. Some of us may stick with what's now become a habit: watching movies at home, and popping our own popcorn. Some may find a middle ground, visiting drive-in theaters (for whom the pandemic brought a surprising surge) or renting cinemas with groups of vaccinated friends. And some of us, armed with masks and full vaccinations, will be heading back into theaters, embracing a little bit of back-to-normal. I don't know about you, but I can't wait.