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Movie theater experience must ‘reinvent itself’: Tribeca Enterprises CEO

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Summer blockbuster season arrives just in time for beleaguered movie theaters, as widespread vaccination and relaxed restrictions on in-door gatherings allow audiences to return for anticipated releases like "F9" and "A Quiet Place Part II."

But the moment of optimism follows a string of movie theater closures last month that capped off a devastating downturn for the industry, prompting concern about whether moviegoing can attain its pre-pandemic popularity among consumers who've built a habit of watching at home.

In a new interview, Tribeca Enterprises CEO Jane Rosenthal — who co-founded and oversees the influential Tribeca Film Festival — said the movie theater experience needs to "reinvent itself." 

Drawing on her experience with the festival, she lamented the loss of iconic theaters for screenings and expressed hope that theaters could come back with a model that takes advantage of a "big theatrical experience" that cannot be replicated at home.

"If I go based on what was going on over a 20-year period with the film festival, we've lost venues like the Ziegfeld, [and] the Paris Theater was bought by Netflix. I look at the number of seats we had below 14th Street [in Manhattan] — those numbers have changed."

"Instead, you have smaller theaters with bigger seats and food," she adds. "So, where is that big theatrical experience?"

"It's got to reinvent itself again," she says. "Because it's very special to be in a dark room with a lot of people and [be] laughing, crying, or screaming."

Jane Rosenthal attends a special 40th anniversary screening of
Jane Rosenthal attends a special 40th anniversary screening of "Taxi Driver" during the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival at the Beacon Theatre on Thursday, April 21, 2016, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

While the experience of being in a physical movie theater may have its benefits, wary customers and government-imposed restrictions made business difficult for movie theaters throughout the pandemic. Last summer, movies earned $176 million, a 96% drop from the same period in 2019, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday. 

Regal Cinemas, the nation's second-largest movie theater chain, reopened its theaters last August but closed them down again in October as the country faced another wave of the virus. The company reopened its theaters again last month, following an announcement by top theater chain AMC (AMC) in March that it was reopening 98% of its locations. 

'It's that human contact that we all miss'

Movie theaters will benefit from pent-up demand as people return to large gatherings, Rosenthal said.

"Certainly to be able to be in an audience, again, is something that we without question all crave," she says. "I think people are eager to do that."

"It's that human contact that we all miss. It's a sense of gathering and listening to live music together," she adds. "All those things that we've taken for granted, in this year of being in isolation."

The Tribeca Film Festival, which returns next month, exemplifies the effort to bring audiences back to in-person moviegoing while accommodating coronavirus concerns, Rosenthal said. 

The event will feature indoor and outdoor screenings, including traveling screens that will give the festival a presence throughout the boroughs of New York City, she added.

"It's an in-person film festival, but nothing is like it was before," she says. "We had to also plan this festival while we're still all very much in a COVID mindset."

"So we're going everywhere this year," she adds. "Bringing screens to audiences."

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