Movie theaters will look vastly different if they survive COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic is killing movie theaters, but there's still hope.

David Priest Former editor
David Priest is an award-winning writer and editor who formerly covered home security for CNET.
David Priest
5 min read

Netflix in late 2019 secured a lease on the Paris Theatre, a historic one-screen cinema in New York City that shuttered earlier that year. 

Netflix/Marion Curtis

Movie theaters were my second home in high school. Thanks to a strange set of family circumstances, I spent my senior year crashing on the couches, futons and guest beds of a half-dozen friends. Since I didn't have a room of my own anymore, I often found alone time in matinees after (or during) school. I went to dozens and dozens of movies over the course of seven or eight months.

Sure, these viewings were occasionally awkward, as when a middle-aged mouth breather perched directly behind me in an otherwise empty theater, five minutes into Black Swan. But I still feel a great nostalgia for that time -- for the cool air, creaky seats and dimly lit anonymity of the movie theater.

Now, thanks to mass closings and skyrocketing debt for theater franchises during COVID-19, the future of the businesses that offered me so much comfort as a teen is in peril. In uncertain times, one thing seems increasingly clear: The theater industry must change to survive. Here's how movie theaters might look in the future.

A continuing, active independent theater scene

Independent theaters often forge deeply personal connections with their customers, and while they've struggled during the pandemic, their loyal customer bases may be the key to their survival as bigger theaters fold or find new business models.

I spoke to Leslie Aberson, president of Apex Entertainment, which runs two independent theaters in Louisville, Kentucky. Apex theaters have opened at 30% capacity, screening classic films like Jurassic Park and The Goonies, to considerable success.

"I believe, based on this initial turnout, when [Christopher Nolan's new blockbuster film] Tenet opens," Aberson said, "we're going to see a huge resurgence of business."

Aberson doesn't believe the pandemic will lead to long-term changes to his businesses. He plans to have Apex theaters operating at full capacity by the holiday season or early 2021, and when we spoke, he seemed fully confident in the future of film as a product.

"I'm not worried about the industry," he said. "They're not going to release Tenet on PPV, for god's sake."

Of course, such predictions depend on the quickly changing realities of both the spread of the novel coronavirus and the perceptions of theatergoers. It remains to be seen whether "business as usual" is attainable in the near future, as Aberson believes, or if more creative solutions -- such as reorganized theater seating or requiring temperature checks for customers -- will be necessary to draw crowds to tentpole flicks like Tenet, Mulan and James Bond later this year.

Subscriptions to traditional cineplexes

Sure, companies like AMC hated the super cheap subscription-based app Moviepass, but the subscription model is an increasingly popular and time-tested method of ensuring revenue -- some theaters in the UK have been using such services for more than a decade. Last year, AMC instituted a $20 subscription service that allows users to see up to three movies per week, and as AMC theaters -- along with competitors like CineMark and Regal -- begin to reopen, you can expect to see more investment in this service and others like it. Maybe that $10 per month won't buy you access to thousands of titles as it does on other services, but it could get you access to a massive screen for watching the newest, shiniest movies each month.


TV and film subscription services have found success on personal devices. Could movie theaters employ the same strategies?

Sarah Tew/CNET

More drive-ins

My habit of more-than-weekly visits to movie theaters was interrupted for the first time in 2016, when my wife and I had our first child and I went a year without going to a theater. But once we had our second child, we decided to problem-solve. We started to look for drive-in theaters, where our kids could snooze in their car seats after bedtime, and we could watch Black Panther. We were fortunate to be in a fairly rural area in middle America for grad school, so we quickly found a drive-in not 10 minutes from our tiny apartment.

Drive-in theaters, which thrived in the '50s and early '60s, are already finding a second (or third) life amid the pandemic, thanks to the built-in social distancing and -- for the reason many of them still survived before COVID-19 -- nostalgia. The model for drive-in theaters differs from traditional cineplexes: Usually, they operate only during weekends, in the warm months and after dark. That means double features are the norm, and usually only the most popular movies find a home on their projectors.

Drive-ins won't fully replace their more traditional counterparts, given their seasonality, limited showtimes and dependence on wide-open outdoor spaces. (They probably wouldn't work well in large cities.) But they will likely ensure the continuation of a form of theater-going for the foreseeable future.

A tech-giant takeover

How exactly this will look remains to be seen, but tech and streaming giants like Apple, Amazon and Netflix have either considered buying theaters or already committed to doing so. While wholesale corporate takeovers are probably a long shot, Silicon Valley has the capital to buy out floundering theater franchises and incorporate them into their existing integrative business models -- and doing so could dramatically reorient the movie theater landscape.

How would that look? Maybe Prime members would get exclusive offers and discounts at Amazon theaters, just like at Whole Foods. Or maybe a premium subscription at Netflix would earn subscribers "free" visits to Netflix theaters, where algorithms set movies and showtimes according to the region. Or perhaps Disney would include large merchandise shops in their theaters, selling Mulan dolls to children as they wait in line for tickets.


Tentpole flicks like Disney's Mulan and the latest James Bond film could lose their production companies hundreds of millions of dollars if they forgo theatrical runs.


For film lovers, this vision of the future might seem bleak, but as Ben Fritz argues in The Big Picture -- his book exploring the future of film -- it's a future that properly understands media conglomerates' priorities: "Disney may have been generating record-breaking profits from its Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars films and live-action remakes of animated classics, but ultimately its movie studio existed to launch and maintain franchises that sold toys and T-shirts and drew tourists to theme parks."

Picturing the future

While the world -- and many markets, including the film industry -- remains unpredictable in 2020, theater lovers and business owners at all levels will be grappling with the challenges of a post-quarantine world. In all likelihood, we won't see a single answer to the problems posed to movie theaters by COVID-19, but we may well see a reshuffling of the existing ecosystem, in which drive-ins, independent theaters and big-brand cineplexes all play an important part.

But as independent theater president Alberson told me when asked about the future, "I have a feeling [that regardless of other changes] we'll all be working together more."

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