It sounds like a pretty simple question: When are the movies coming back? But in our coronavirus-altered age, even simple questions have complicated answers. And the answer is this: No one is 100% sure.
That’s because the return of movies depends on multiple, overlapping factors—all of which dynamically influence each other.
First, of course, individual states have to give the green light to reopen. That’s the obvious and clear initial step. But that will be likely require some pretty big changes compared to moviegoing the way we used to know it, potentially including (according to the industry trade site Deadline) social-distancing measures such as staggered seating assignments, protective plastic shields on the backs of chairs, longer blocks of time between screenings to allow for thorough cleaning, hand sanitizer stations throughout the theater, temperature-taking at the door and employees wearing masks.
Then there’s the question of whether audiences will show up. If the above measures are consistently implemented, about 75% of people polled in a recent survey said they’d be willing to head back into theaters for popcorn and a movie.
But we’re not done with our list of conditions for moving back toward a masked version of theatrical normalcy just yet. That’s because there’s another big player involved here. The biggest, in fact: the studios producing new movies. Understandably, there seem to be plenty of studios heads looking at their competitors and saying with a nervous smile, “Uh, you go first.”
Turns out, however, that one studio has volunteered to take that leap. Warner Bros. has scheduled Christopher Nolan’s mystery-shrouded thriller Tenet for a July 17 release. Though a handful of smaller new films may hit theaters first (such as Russell Crowe’s new actioner Unhinged on July 1), most prognosticators see Nolan’s Tenet as the proverbial canary in the coalmine.
The Washington Post quoted an anonymous marketing executive from another studio as admitting everyone’s watching Tenet’s performance very carefully: “If Tenet doesn’t come out or doesn’t succeed, every other company goes home. It’s no movies until Christmas.”
If Tenet stumbles, however, don’t expect studios to shift gears and stream these big-budget tentpole flicks online. Despite the hubbub about Trolls World Tour’s unexpected streaming success and its potential to permanently alter the movie status quo, the math still doesn’t work for the biggest would-be blockbusters. A recent statement from the National Association of Theater Owners practically dares big studios to try to emulate Trolls’ formula:
To avoid catastrophic losses to the studios, these titles must have the fullest possible theatrical release around the world. While one or two releases may forgo theatrical release, it is our understanding from discussions with distributors that the vast majority of deferred releases will be rescheduled for theatrical release as life returns to normal.
For all of those reasons—not to mention news about COVID-19’s spread that changes on a daily basis—no one really knows for sure when you’re going to be able to go to the movies again? July? August? December?
We’ll just have to wait and see.