In a move that will likely be remembered as either the beginning of a “return to normalcy” or a misguided decision with the potential to backfire, theater chain Cinemark has become the first major U.S. film exhibitor to set a planned date for its gradual reopening. Currently shut down like all other theaters due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Cinemark is eyeing July 1, 2020 as the date when the first of its 345 U.S. theaters would open. In total, the chain operates 525 theaters worldwide.
Cinemark CFO and COO Sean Gamble told investors and financial analysts on a conference call that July 1 would serve as the “ramp up” date, with employees first returning in the few weeks prior to prepare the theaters and train for the special circumstances under which they would be operating. The openings would be no means be universal—rather, they’d be tailored to state regulations on a state-by-state basis, and would likely come with various caveats, including limited capacities and limited hours. Gamble estimated it could take around three months before the theaters are seeing a “normal level” of business, but that they could make due with sparsely attended screenings.
“We can execute that successfully and profitably,” Gamble told investors, saying they expected occupancy levels of 20% to 30%. “Our lowest attended month had occupancy levels of 10% and we still operated profitably.”
One thing you shouldn’t expect to see in theaters at first, however, is new releases. Most major releases (such as Disney’s Mulan) have already been pushed back to mid-to-late July at the very earliest, so Cinemark intends to fill those early weeks by “showing library product, high-profile library product,” according to CEO Mark Zoradi. Those films would be shown at reduced ticket prices, although it’s not clear what exactly those titles would entail. As China initially re-opened its theaters, it tried a similar strategy, showing films like Avatar, Interstellar or Avengers: Endgame at reduced prices, but the theaters ultimately only re-opened for a week before being shuttered again as the country’s virus cases continued to rise. A similar result in the U.S. is a distinct possibility, which must fill Cinemark with trepidation. But the business demands what it demands.
Assuming everything goes as planned, the first major U.S. new film release would be Christopher Nolan’s new film Tenet, which Warner Bros. still has scheduled for the weekend of July 17-19. Will that film be the movie that signals the return of new cinema to theaters in the U.S.? Movie-lovers everywhere will be waiting to find out with bated breath.