Delta Variant Disrupts Moviegoing Comfort Levels as Studios Worry

Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, the percentage of Americans who say they’re willing to return to cinemas has tumbled 11 points in less than a month.

The results of a late July poll on moviegoing confidence levels were alarming. The National Research Group survey, closely watched by studios, showed that the overall comfort level had tumbled from a pandemic-era high of 81 percent to 72 percent in the span of just three weeks amid the delta variant. Moms appeared to be the most concerned about taking a trip to the multiplex, with their comfort index tumbling from 75 percent to 59 percent.

Behind the scenes, Paramount wasted no time in responding to the mom factor. On July 30, the studio pulled family film Clifford the Big Red Dog from its planned Sept. 13 release in theaters following a gala premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. The move sparked speculation as to whether other event films planned for September and October will be delayed as well because of the pandemic.

Related Stories

The early fall crop of titles includes Venom: Let There Be Carnage (Sept. 24) and James Bond installment No Time to Die, which opens on Oct. 8 in North America after first launching overseas, where many countries are also facing challenges because of a surge in COVID-19 cases. (No Time to Die has been delayed for more than a year, so it’s not clear whether MGM will move it again.)

Related Video

The weekend of July 30 to Aug. 1 brought more conflicting news. Disney’s Dwayne Johnson-Emily Blunt tentpole Jungle Cruise opened to $35 million domestically and a terrible $27.6 million overseas. While the domestic number was indeed better than expected, it underscored that moviegoing is far from returning to pre-pandemic levels (that was true even before delta).

The title did boost its fortunes by earning $30 million — or nearly a third of its total opening — in the home, where Disney+ subscribers and their families could watch the film for $30.

The moviegoing comfort level fell even further by Aug. 1 to 70 percent as delta continued to make headlines, an updated NRG report found. The 11-point decline from 81 percent on July 11 was the fastest the entertainment research firm had seen since the start of the pandemic in March and April of 2020. And when asked why they weren’t “very comfortable” going to a movie theater, 52 percent of consumers cited the spread of new COVID19 variants, while another 42 percent said they’re “very concerned” about the spread of delta, up from 34 percent the week before.

Still, the overall moviegoing comfort level of 70 percent — fueled by moviegoers under the age of 18, and led by males — is bounds ahead of where it was last winter, in the 40s. And overall ticket sales have continued to climb this spring and summer.

“While we have seen a delta-driven decline in comfort, it’s clear that many moviegoers have learned to live with COVID. Nearly twice as many moviegoers are comfortable going to the movies today as were at the peak of the surge last winter, which is reason to be optimistic that once we break this latest curve, the theatrical business will be well-positioned to continue its rebound,” says NRG’s Ray Subers.

Nor are studio executives flipping the emergency switch. Epidemiologists consulting with studios are saying that the delta variant could spike in August, with the situation improving in September.

The speed of that improvement is the big question. On Aug. 1, Sony released a second Venom 2 trailer, which said the film is coming “this fall,” versus listing its release date.

“This is a very complicated situation, and no simple answer or analysis can be applied. We can simply gather the data every weekend and assess on an ongoing basis,” says Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore.

The debate over how much delta and a hybrid home-theatrical release is hurting the box office recovery and big-budget films such as Jungle Cruise will continue with this weekend’s launch of James Gunn’s event pic The Suicide Squad, which — like all other 2021 Warner Bros. titles — is opening domestically at the same time in cinemas and on HBO Max.

Jungle Cruise‘s opening generally hit our expectations but there isn’t really a barometer for success right now with such a fractured global marketplace,” says chief analyst Shawn Robbins of BoxOffice Pro. “This is a film that would have opened to much stronger results with an exclusive theatrical window, and certainly without Delta variant concerns in mind for the unvaccinated and more cautious audiences out there.”

On Aug. 3, New York City announced that patrons of such businesses as restaurants, movie theaters, gyms and other venues will have to show proof of vaccination beginning next month.

A version of this story appeared in the Aug. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.