COVID-19 Bill Could Boost Smaller Movie Theater Owners, But Exhibition Giants May Be Left Out

Movie Theaters Prepare for a Long Winter
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Socially-distanced guests wait for the movie 'The Empire Strikes Back' to start at AMC Town Square 18 on August 20 in Nevada.

The new pandemic legislation includes $15 billion in grants earmarked for independent movie theaters and live venues for music or stage performances, though it sets limitations on what venues are eligible.

The new coronavirus pandemic relief bill, which is set to receive a vote Monday, includes $15 billion in grants earmarked for independent movie theaters and live venues for music or stage performances.

The grants will provide much-needed relief to these venues, many of which have seen their business all but vanish as the pandemic canceled concerts and stage plays, while pushing almost all new theatrical releases to 2021. These particular grants, however, appear to disqualify the three largest players in the domestic movie theater business: AMC, Cinemark and Regal Cinemas owner Cineworld.

The bill stipulates that any eligible venue must have seen its revenue decline by at least 25 percent this year, and there are a number of disqualifiers that will limit what movie theater operators or live venues are eligible for the grants. The owner of the venue cannot appear in more than two of these categories: publicly traded, operate in more than one country, or in more than 10 U.S. states, have more than 500 full-time employees, or have received at least 10 percent of its revenue from government sources. That could mean that some U.S. regional theater chains are able to see some relief funds from these grants.

The largest theater chains still have access to the public debt and securities markets, and may be eligible for other pandemic relief programs from the Federal Reserve. AMC Theatres is the largest theater circuit in the U.S., and operates around 1,000 theaters globally. Cineworld owns 546 Regal Cinemas locations in the United States after its $3.6 billion acquisition of the chain in 2018, while Cinemark operates 533 theaters in the U.S. and Latin America.

Representatives for the movie theater chains did not respond to a request for comment as of writing.

In a statement on Monday, the National Association of Theatre Owners president and CEO John Fithian said, "With multiple vaccines beginning to roll out, we see a bright light at the end of a very dark tunnel. There is a very real chance that our business can begin to return to normal in the spring. This bipartisan agreement, shepherded by Senators Schumer, Cornyn and Klobuchar, means that the vast majority of small and mid-size U.S. movie theaters and their employees will have the resources to make it through to the end of that tunnel. We urge its immediate implementation." NATO said that it is additionally seeking financial aid for larger theater chains that are "not covered by this legislation."

The language of the bill was based on the Save Our Stages Act, which was introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and in the House by Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vermont) in July. In a statement, the National Independent Venue Association, which had lobbied for the act, said that it was "thrilled that Congress has heard the call of shuttered independent venues across the country and provided us a crucial lifeline."

Dec. 21, 8:43 p.m. Updated with NATO statement.