The Future of Movie Theaters in a Pandemic World


Betty Benson, Senior Editor

American culture makes it almost impossible to not be familiar with the scent and taste of buttered popcorn as well as the comforting feel of leather recliner seats. There is something magical about staring out at a big, bright screen in a dimly lit room, sharing two hours with complete strangers; simply so to sit down together and enjoy a major motion picture. In 1905, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania became home to the first established movie theater, the Nickelodeon (2016). Since then, cinema has changed, grown, and developed into its present form today. A large portion of American culture has been built off of the entertainment industry, and going to a movie theater to catch the latest cinematic release is something that many still find joy participating in today. 

For years, things such as the creation of different streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and now Disney+, have threatened the ability of theaters to stay afloat. Unfortunately, the spread of Covid-19 has produced a completely new roadblock for the industry. Theaters have been battling to bring people into their establishments and fill seats; they make money from individual ticket sales. So what happens when a pandemic sweeps the globe and the very act of filling these seats could have major implications on an individuals health? With different government mandates closing businesses, what can theaters do when the very livelihood of their operation relies on humans coming into contact with each other? 

Covid’s Impact on Theaters 

When Covid-19 spread across the country, theaters, along with many businesses, had to be shut down. Whether it be for a short amount of time or longer, businesses that had to close and reopen are struggling to stay afloat during this time, and will continue to battle the looming threat of “going out of business”. With movie production having been halted in an effort to curb the virus, theaters don’t exactly have a lot to premiere at this moment in time. There is also the key fact that production studios don’t have much money to gain from premiering movies in empty theaters. Thus, the main problem movie theaters are facing seems to be on a closed circuit loop. Theaters can’t bring in customers, which in turn makes production companies less likely to debut movies in these establishments, which results in people not going to the cinema. 

Back in September, Christopher Nolan’s major motion picture Tenet was released in theaters in the United States. It was hoped that this release would “jump-start the movie-theater industry” (Sampson, 2020). Tenet, along with other promising films, were predicted to spark interest in viewers to go out and see the movies on the big screen. Unfortunately, even with new Covid-19 protocols, many new releases, including Tenet, tanked horribly. It’s speculated that Tenet did not even break even on its 400 million dollar budget. Clearly, the lure of cinematic masterpieces isn’t enough to draw customers out of their homes in the midst of a pandemic, which is, of course, completely justified. So what does this mean for the future? 

A Movie Theater Worker’s Perspective: Marcelino Cruz

Marcelino Cruz is an 18 year old Senior at Tumwater High School. He began working at the Century Olympia movie theater located in the Capital Mall during March of 2018. Marcelino, or Marce, as he’s commonly referred to by his friends, has always had a passion for filmmaking. He said “I wanted my first job to be related to something I loved,” and promptly found himself working at the hub of all things movie. The best part about working at Century Olympia for Marcelino is the fact that “it feels like a family there”. He’s made a boatload of coworker-turned-friends, and feels that he can trust them completely. Besides the amazing coworkers, Marce states that, “I love the fact that I’m surrounded by stuff that I enjoy. The atmosphere is just unreal.” Clearly, he’s found his place, as well as his people. 

Unfortunately, things at the theater turned bleak once coronavirus began sweeping the globe. The Century Olympia theater first closed in March of 2020, reopened in late August, and just recently closed once again in November. Marce recalls that things were very different once the theater reopened during late August. “Every inch of work I was used to completely changed into a tedious and hard process that I did not enjoy as much as before Covid.” Things have certainly not been easy for employees. Not to mention, employee hours were slashed, making paychecks much more slim. “I have insurance to pay and I already didn’t make a lot of money at that job.” Marcelino “wasn’t surprised at all” when the theater was closed for a second time in November. The most recent closure came as a result of firmer restrictions placed by Washington state in response to increases in human contact due to the current holiday season. Since then, Marcelino has been out of work entirely, with no real reopening date in sight for the near future. 

Adjusting to new rules and a lack of solid income aren’t the only things in Marcelino’s life that have been impacted by his job’s closure, reopening, and sudden closure once again. It appears that Marce is in the same boat as many others when it comes to the way that the pandemic has affected his mental health. “It’s had a major impact on my [ability] of getting out of the house and doing something. Being cooped up in my house really did take a toll on me because I just wanted to go see my friends that were basically my family, and I just wanted to have a good time at work because I enjoy my job . . . it really did make me a little sad.” Now that quarantining is the new norm, it seems that the only real form of social interaction that people can get comes from work. With the movie theater being closed, Marcelino has lost his connection to engaging with others outside of his house. Obviously, it’s not without good cause that the theater was shut down, but it certainly hasn’t been daisies and roses for those that have such large social support circles outside of their homes. 

During August, with the theater reopened for a short timespan, Marcelino noted that, “besides the twenty percent capacity that we had, just in general, not a lot of people were coming. And the people who were coming, were coming for just the food pretty much. The popcorn was the number one thing . . . it was crazy.” Similar situations have been taking place across the country, minus the high regard for popcorn of course; the rate of movie-watchers at theaters has drastically declined since Covid-19 became a serious threat. So what exactly does this mean? How are people watching recent releases if not in a large cinema auditorium? And more importantly, what does this mean for the future of the movie theater industry? 

Marcelino has a very clear idea of how the next few years will look. “The future of movie theaters is really in the hands of studios right now. Basically, studios are looking more towards streaming services like HBOMax and other sources.They’re looking to make it so that you rent and watch big budget movies just at your house. Like, Mulan was going to be in theaters but Disney+ came. What’s bad about that is that if more studios follow suit, then that’s going to take a big toll on theaters.” Essentially, movie theaters are losing a large source of their revenue that takes place when someone buys a ticket. If theaters are thought of as a middle man between production studios and an audience, then the use of streaming services symbolizes the middle man being cut out. Rather than go to a movie theater to watch a new release, as Marcelino stated, one can simply watch it from the comfort of their own couch. 

Marce still has faith that things could get better. It will just require the joint efforts of studios and movie theaters. “I’m hoping that more studios will not go through with streaming movies. That convenience is very scary for people who enjoy movies first hand, rather than being at their house. Big budget movies, they really need big theater sales. I think it would benefit both of them if they just waited it out; even if it cost both the studio and theater companies money. It would not only be more profitable in the long run, but for movie fans, it would really benefit them too.” The decisions that companies make within the next year play a significant role in either signing the movie theater industry’s death sentence, or helping it stay a staple part of cultural entertainment. It all depends on whether or not corporations consider money more valuable than an irreplicable experience that’s been around for over a century.  

Next Steps / Alternatives

The question now becomes about what individuals can do to support movie theaters so that they don’t have to shut down permanently, and in a way that doesn’t jeopardize their health and safety. Luckily, there are a plethora of different sources at one’s disposal that all aid theaters in need. Many organizations and charities have been created to help collect donations for cinematic establishments. “Virtual cinema programs”  have also been developed as a way to channel funds for movie theaters (Lindahl, 2020). Viewers are able to rent new releases online for the sum of about 10-15 dollars, and part of the proceeds go to local theaters in need. (A complete list of charities and foundations can be found at this website: How to Support the Film Industry During the Coronavirus Pandemic.)

All in all, there isn’t much that the movie theater industry itself can do to spark major rises in revenue. It will take a joint effort from theaters, production studios, and local individual viewers to help in-person cinema businesses get back on their feet. Even though during times like these it’s more convenient to rent a recently released movie on Disney+, or start a streaming subscription with Netflix, it’s important to think in terms of what the future holds. With hopeful notions of a vaccine underway in the near future, what will public places look like once the dust settles from Covid-19? It can be assumed that, maybe not right away, but eventually, people will long for the scent of butter perfected popcorn and the smooth feel of leather recliner seats once again. What if these staple American comforts aren’t there to greet customers once this quarantine is over? It’s important that, now more than ever, the outcomes of businesses, whether it be mom-and-pop corner stores, or large scale movie theater industries, are consciously thought about, and protected.