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‘Tenet’ Didn’t Bring Audiences Back to Movie Theaters. Now What?

“Death on the Nile” from Disney’s Twentieth Century division is the biggest-budgeted movie still scheduled to come out in October. If “Black Widow” (Nov. 6) or the James Bond spectacle “No Time to Die” (Nov. 20) get pushed back or moved online — as Disney did recently with “Mulan” — theaters are likely to face arduous conversations about their futures with investors and lenders.

In addition, the longer the pandemic drags on, the more that streaming becomes a threat to theaters. At least a dozen movies originally destined for big screens, including “Hamilton,” “Trolls World Tour” and “Greyhound,” have been redirected to streaming services or online rental platforms. The move has kept money flowing to studios, but analysts say that it has undercut theaters by training consumers to expect new films to be instantly available in their homes.

“We’re learning that markets being opened, cinemas having safety protocols and studios releasing movies are all tied together,” John Fithian, chief executive of the National Association of Theatre Owners, said in an email. “Open markets need safe cinemas, movies need open markets, cinemas need movies. All these things raise audience awareness and comfort in returning to movies. You can’t do one at a time.”

Wall Street’s reaction to the “Tenet” opening and the “Wonder Woman” postponement is telling. AMC shares climbed to about $7 on Sept. 4, the day “Tenet” arrived in U.S. theaters, up from about $2 in April. They have since declined by about 17 percent. Cinemark has declined 18 percent since Sept. 4. Cineworld, the parent company of Regal Cinemas, is down 14 percent. (For context, the S&P 500 is flat for the period.)

“From a cash standpoint, we can see this thing through way into next year if need be,” Mark Zoradi, Cinemark’s chief executive, said by phone. The company, based in Texas, operates about 5,977 screens in the United States and Latin America. “The fourth quarter is getting our feet back on the ground. Next year is a transition year. 2022 is back to a sense of normality.”

He added that recent customer surveys had shown 97 percent satisfaction with safety protocols. “We’ve spent millions and millions of dollars getting this stuff right,” he said. “If we can convince the consumer that we have done all of these things, they are much more likely to want to come back.”

The nation’s largest multiplex chain, AMC Entertainment, declined to comment.

When it comes to the three largest film markets, expectations are tempered for both Los Angeles and San Francisco given the strict metrics California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced as part of its reopening plans. For New York though, exhibitors and studio executives alike are incensed that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has given no specific time table for when movie theaters can reopen, coupling them with other large-crowd places like concert venues and amusement parks, while allowing bowling alleys and restaurants to resume indoor operations. Not only is New York City crucial for sales, much of the media coverage and online buzz surrounding new movies is generated from there. (The New York Times typically does not review films that are not playing in New York.)

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