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Gray Areas: Lack of product hurts movie theaters’ return

I’ve spent a good portion of my life in movie theaters.

For decades I saw at least 100 movies a year or more sitting in dark theaters in close proximity to strangers. It was my job, but I was one of those people who was lucky enough or smart enough to find a job that let me do things I would do even if I wasn’t getting paid.

In recent years, I’ve spent less time in theaters. The shifting priorities of the job were a big part of that, but I’d also hit a point where everything I saw just reminded me of something better I’d seen before.

Still, nothing compares to the theatrical experience. For me at least, watching a movie at home pushes everything to the center. A bad movie at home never is quite as bad — the distractions of the laptop, the cellphone, etc. always are close at hand — but a great movie never is greater than it is on a larger-than-life screen that commands one’s full attention.

But the theatrical experience is one of the many entertainment options hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ugly Catch-22 plaguing the industry — the public isn’t going to return to the multiplexes until they’re filled with big-budget blockbusters; the distributors aren’t going to release those blockbusters until they’re convinced the public is ready to return to theaters — shows no sign of ending.

Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” has earned $36 million domestically in its first 17 days. That’s a fraction of what it would have earned pre-pandemic. “Dunkirk,” Nolan’s last film, earned $50 million its opening weekend. “Inception,” the Nolan movie that is most similar to “Tenet” thematically, opened at $62 million, and that was 10 years ago. That would be about $90 million at today’s ticket prices.

Not surprisingly, no other distributor is following “Tenet” into the marketplace with its prized assets. But how much longer can theaters operate without them?

Looking at the schedule for Boulevard Centre in Niles and Cinema South and Tinseltown in Boardman, not a single 2020 movie is opening this week (the schedule for Golden Star’s Austintown Cinema wasn’t available online Wednesday morning).

The “new” movies arriving Friday are “The Empire Strikes Back” (again), the Ruth Bader Ginsburg titles “On the Basis of Sex” and “RBG” and vintage animated fare (“The Land Before Time,” “The Secret Life of Pets”).

According to Box Office Mojo, a reliable website for box office and movie release information, nothing is opening wide next week either. Oct. 9 brings “Honest Thief,” an action thriller with Liam Neeson, and “The War with Grandpa,” a comedy starring Robert De Niro. Neither is distributed by a major studio, and it’s hard to imagine either film sparking a rush to theaters.

The drive-ins stayed in business this summer with creative booking of classics and the occasional new release, mostly titles that would have gone straight to DVD / VOD in a normal year. And it helped that nearly every other amusement business was shuttered, and drive-ins also felt more safe than the other options available.

Indoor theaters don’t offer that same comfort. They are requiring masks in the lobby, but they also make most of their money on concessions. You can’t eat popcorn or drink a half gallon of Coke while wearing a mask.

Some people clearly aren’t concerned with the virus. And before the pandemic, the moviegoing experience was marred by folks who couldn’t shut up or stay off of their cellphones. Do you really trust people who couldn’t adhere to basic common courtesy to follow the guidelines put in place to avoid the spread of a virus? And do you want to spend two hours in an enclosed space with them?

Those are just a few of the problems that are going to have to be addressed before James Bond or Wonder Woman (and the crowds they will draw) can return to the theater.

Andy Gray is the editor of Ticket. Write to him at agray@tribtoday.com.

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