Movie theaters’ tentative reopening fails to answer big question

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Michalnapartowicz | Dreamstime.com

Movie theaters are taking steps toward getting back to normal, screening old pictures in a few locations while they await new releases from Hollywood studios.

Comscore Inc., the film and TV researcher, reported weekend box-office sales for the first time in the five months since theaters closed because of the covid-19 pandemic. With just a fraction of U.S. theaters operating and few new movies around, cinema owners may not know right away if consumers are willing to turn out in large numbers.

“The Spongebob Movie: Sponge On The Run” took in $900,000 across 300 locations in Canada, while “Unhinged,” which opened internationally before its U.S. release on Aug. 21, had $582,000 from 271 locations in the country. Across North America, “The Tax Collector” made $203,722 in its second weekend, while “The Rental” fetched $78,000 in its fourth week.

While Comscore’s first trove of data for since March doesn’t yet have a complete picture of box office performance, because some studios keep sales data private, the figures provide a rough outline of what a return to normal will look like.

Cinemark Holdings Inc., a large chain, reopened some locations this weekend and was enforcing social distancing and other restrictions that limit crowds in the auditoriums. Those changes will slow the recovery efforts. Heading into the weekend, Comscore said 1,386 North American locations were open, less than a fourth of the 6,000 domestic multiplexes.

Last year at this time, the top 10 movies produced weekend sales of $110.7 million in the U.S., led by “Good Boys,” an R-rated Universal Pictures comedy about sixth-graders trying to make it to their first “kissing party.”

Major Hollywood studios haven’t put out new movies since March and the next big-budget release, “Tenet” from AT&T Inc.’s Warner Bros., isn’t expected until Sept. 3 in the U.S. The largest exhibitor, AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., said last week it has 184 theaters open abroad and will start to open its 600 locations in the U.S. on Aug. 20, in time for the Russell Crowe thriller “Unhinged” from Solstice Studios. A weekend full of major new films is unlikely until 2021.

The longer-term prospects for theaters are also up in the air. Several potential blockbusters that were expected to premiere in 2020, including Walt Disney Co.’s “Mulan,” are instead debuting on streaming services. Studios want to shrink the number of days that movies show only in cinemas, the so-called theatrical window.

AMC agreed to let Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures, one of the largest Hollywood studios, make its movies available for home viewing after 17 days, in exchange for a cut of the revenue. While no other studios or chains have reached similar agreements, the accord may set a precedent for releasing films to at-home audiences sooner.

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