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COVID-19 is not the only thing keeping Americans out of movie theaters

·5 min read

Pfizer’s positive news about its experimental COVID-19 vaccine on Monday morning sent in-person entertainment stocks surging, including Disney (its theme parks have been battered by the pandemic), cruise lines like Carnival and Norwegian, and movie theater names like AMC and Cinemark.

But for the movie theater industry, the end of the pandemic won’t necessarily prompt an immediate return to boom times.

A new survey conducted by Harris Poll for Yahoo Finance finds that COVID-19 concerns are not the only factor keeping Americans from returning to movie theaters.

In an online poll of 1,022 U.S. adults, 81% said they had not been to a movie theater since before March, when widespread lockdowns began.

That group of respondents was asked why they haven’t gone to a theater (if theaters have reopened in their area). In a multiple choice question, 56% of people said concerns about getting COVID-19 are keeping them away from theaters, 20% said they fear the theater would not be cleaned well enough, and 12% said they don’t want to wear a mask while watching the movie. Those are all pandemic-related reasons.

But another 22% said there was no movie they wanted to go see, and 19% said they’d rather stream movies at home. A sizable 15% said they didn’t go to theaters often even before the pandemic.

This is troubling data for an already-ailing industry.

It suggests that even as reopened movie theaters are following industrywide standards for sanitizing, requiring masks, and seating moviegoers at dramatically reduced capacity, it isn’t enough to make the majority of Americans feel comfortable in theaters.

And the pandemic has made Americans more reluctant to go to a theater next year: 33% of those surveyed said they expect to go to movie theaters less often in 2021 than they did in 2019. Of this group, 74% cited concerns about getting COVID-19 and 38% cited concerns about theater cleanliness, but 31% also said it’s cheaper to watch movies at home, and 25% said they have less money in their budgets for non-essentials. 25% said they expect to go to theaters less often in 2021 because fewer movies are being shown in theaters now.

[See more surveys from Yahoo Finance and Harris Poll]

In other words, movie studios are also driving this trend by postponing or skipping theatrical release, a practice that accelerated during the pandemic when theaters were closed, but is now expected to continue even beyond the pandemic, at least for certain movies like indie comedies.

Universal in May released “Trolls World Tour” straight to digital rental for $20, and the movie made more in rental fees in three weeks than the first “Trolls” movie made in theaters in five months; Disney in August put its live-action “Mulan” on its Disney+ platform for a $30 digital purchase fee, skipping U.S. theatrical release.

Highly anticipated blockbusters like Marvel’s “Black Widow,” MGM’s “No Time To Die,” and WB’s “Dune” have all been pushed into 2021. “It looks like all the studios have really pushed out many of the major blockbuster movies, and those blockbuster movies that generate about $100 million domestically, they account for about 60% of the box office in the U.S., so they're critical to keeping these businesses afloat,” says Macquarie analyst Chad Beynon. “The problem with this is, the theaters are open. They're waiting for the content, and they're just sitting and praying that there won't be more delays.”

Box Office Guru editor Gitesh Pandya predicts that the already-growing gap between “major league and minor league” movies will continue to widen after the pandemic. Marvel movies, big action movies, and highly-anticipated sequels will still “need that big screen experience,” Pandya said in May. “But some smaller and medium films, some sequels from older brands which may not sell anymore, the riskier ones, I do think studios will look at some of those and decide this does not need a major release in theaters, we can go straight to streaming.”

A worker wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) sanitizes seats inside the Inox Leisure movie theatre ahead of its reopening, amidst the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Mumbai, India, October 13, 2020. REUTERS/Niharika Kulkarni
A worker wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) sanitizes seats inside the Inox Leisure movie theatre ahead of its reopening, amidst the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Mumbai, India, October 13, 2020. REUTERS/Niharika Kulkarni

For a sense of the industry's struggle, look no further than AMC, the largest U.S. chain. Its 2020 Q3 revenue fell 91% from one year ago, while losses ballooned to $905 million from a loss of $54.8 million one year ago.

Still, there’s an encouraging number for theater chains in the Yahoo Finance-Harris Poll results: Among those who haven’t gone to a theater since before the pandemic, 53% said a COVID-19 vaccine would make them feel more comfortable. (31% also said they’d feel more comfortable if only the vaccinated were permitted into theaters, but that scenario is highly unlikely.)

Pfizer and BioNTech this week said they expect to have 50 million doses of their vaccine available before the end of the year, and 1.3 billion doses in 2021. Movie theaters, along with restaurants, hotels, and other key industries battered by the pandemic, are cheering on all the pharma names working on vaccines right now.

AMC (AMC) in particular has sought to raise cash through creative methods multiple times during the pandemic to stave off bankruptcy. On Tuesday, the company filed to offer another 20 million shares in order to raise capital.

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and closely covers the streaming wars. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

Read more:

AMC's outlook is extremely dire as pandemic drags on

Disney, WB are sending a clear signal: Americans aren't ready to return to movie theaters

Disney’s $30 ‘Mulan’ plan will be a litmus test for the entire film industry

Disney's streaming re-org is not just about Disney+

‘Hamilton’ delivers 64% download bump for Disney+

Disney's 'Mulan' will look to Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet' for a movie theater health check

Coronavirus is forcing Quibi, NBC Peacock to change their plans at launch

Movie theaters seek bailout as coronavirus devastates business