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What the pandemic means for a film industry in a 'state of paralysis'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: California's Governor Gavin Newsom has just announced a limited reopening of some movie theaters on Friday, but big chains, including AMC Theaters, have said they fear for their very survival.

The pandemic continues to bring chaos to the more than $42 billion global movie business.

Jeffrey Brown reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: This summer's blockbusters for now not coming to a theater near you, as, one by one, "Mulan," "Wonder Woman 1984," and so many other films have been put on hold.

Kim Masters is editor at large of "The Hollywood Reporter" and host of public station KCRW's "The Business."

Kim Masters: The movie industry and the entertainment industry more broadly is in a state of paralysis, more or less right now. And what you see is, anything with a significant budget is getting pushed.

Jeffrey Brown: A major test case, Masters says, "Tenet," a big movie by a big-time director, Christopher Nolan, of "Dunkirk" and "The Dark Knight" films.

Actor: To do what I do, I need some idea of the threat we face.

Jeffrey Brown: "Tenet," a mind-bending, time-warping thriller, was expected to be one of the summer's box office hits opening mid-July. But will that release date hold up?

Kim Masters: Many people in the industry think this is simply unrealistic. I think Christopher Nolan's idea was, my movie will lead the way, and people will come, and the world will start to return to itself.

But I don't think, in many places, there's a feeling so strongly that we're -- the world is returning to itself, that we're streaming into the theaters.

Jeffrey Brown: Where we are streaming, of course, is in our homes, streaming video on our small screens.

Netflix and other services had already been challenging and changing the Hollywood economic model. The pandemic pushed that further.

In April, Universal released its animated sequel "Trolls World Tour directly to streaming, charging $19.99. It took in more than $100 million dollars in its first three weeks, more than the original "Trolls" film made in 2016 with a traditional theater release, high opening, for sure, but not, says Masters, game-changing.

Kim Masters: You could do that with a certain type of movie. I mean, "Trolls," they had all kinds of reasons for doing it. They'd already spent, even just in this country, say, $40 million to advertise it. It was a known property. It was a kids move in a time of pandemic. It was a bit of a one-off. You can't extrapolate.

Jeffrey Brown: Most movies, that is, still need theaters. But who's ready to return to the local multiplex?

Bobbie Bagby Ford: We are going to have more debt at the end of this with no income and probably less income for the remainder of the year. So, to say it's scary is sort of an understatement.

Jeffrey Brown: Bobbie Bagby is executive vice president of B&B Theatres, the nation's sixth largest theater chain with more than 400 screens across seven states. It's a family-owned company that dates to 1924.

Bobbie Bagby Ford: We have gone through wars and 9/11, the Great Depression. I mean, you name it, we have kind of been through those times.

And while they have been hard, we have been able to remain open. This is the first time in our history that every single one of our locations has been closed, and with zero income coming in.

Jeffrey Brown: Now theater owners everywhere need to lure audiences back. It's no longer about the popcorn and the films, but about feeling safe. And that means changing the physical space.

Bobbie Bagby Ford: Lots of, obviously, extra cleaning procedures are taking place. We're staggering seats. It means we're losing every other or every third seat, depending on the auditorium layout. So, it's less people coming into the building, even if we could be at full capacity.

I think people are ready to get out. I think storytelling and escaping to the magic of the movies is sort of in our core as America. We're doing everything we can to try to protect our staff and our guests as they come back. But I don't know what the future holds.

Jeffrey Brown: It may hold a return to the past of drive-in theaters. There are just about 320 left, but they're having a sudden resurgence.

At a Salt Lake City drive-in recently, cars parked two spaces apart, and Hailey Deets and her daughter enjoyed the horror film "The Hunt," an escape from our national real-life horror.

Hailey Deets: This is probably actually my fourth or fifth time out of my house in two months.

Jeffrey Brown: In fact, drive-in theaters themselves began as a response to earlier changes in American culture, numbering more than 4,000 in their heyday in the post-war, car-loving, suburbanizing America of the 1950s.

And there's a lesson there for us now, says theater historian Kevin Corbett of Central Michigan University.

Kevin Corbett: In many ways, the history of movie theaters is actually a history of those theaters having to respond to threats.

We can go back to at least as far as the 1930s and the Great Depression, when fewer and fewer people were spending what money they had on going to movies.

Jeffrey Brown: One way to bring them in? Popcorn. The concession stand, it turns out, was a major innovation for its time, just as, more recently, many theaters have added plush, vibrating seats and concierge service, making themselves entertainment destinations, in response to the threat from the comfort-of-home viewing offered by streaming services.

That history gives Kevin Corbett reason for optimism.

Kevin Corbett: Given the fact that theaters now have survived a variety of threats for you could literally say 120 years now, because turn of the 20th century is when actual movie theaters first appeared, I don't foresee this pandemic, this particular threat ending movie theaters.

I'm convinced people have always and will always want to be out and entertained in groups. That alone will allow theaters to continue to exist.

Jeffrey Brown: Maybe so. For now, the superheroes, animated adventurers and Tom Cruise's "Top Gun" sequel all await their return to the big screen.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: And we can't wait for movies to come back.

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