Imax CEO: COVID-19 Vaccine a "Game Changer" for Movie Theater Revival

AMC Empire in New York City 3 —Publicity - H  2020
Courtesy of Peter McClintock

Until now, theater owners and Hollywood studios weren't even sure whether the 2021 calendar would hold.

The decimated box office received a jolt of good news on Monday.

Pfizer Inc. announced that its COVID-19 vaccine may be 90 percent effective, prompting top health authorities to speculate that life could begin to resemble normal by March or April. This provides theater owners and Hollywood studios clarity for the first time as to when moviegoing might resume in earnest.

"Pfizer said it is a game changer in terms of public health issues. And I think the vaccine is a game changer in terms of the movie industry. No one had a time frame before. The announcement puts bookends on in," Imax CEO Richard Gelfond told The Hollywood Reporter.

Exhibition and studios echoed Gelfond's sentiments, while stocks of Imax and other leading exhibition chains soared on Monday upon word of the vaccine, and following Saturday's announcement that President-elect Joe Biden has won the 2020 presidential race ahead of incumbent Donald Trump.

Until now, Hollywood studios weren't even sure if the 2021 release calendar was stable in terms of their big-budget tentpoles, and particularly the first part of the year. "The studios have really been struggling. Movies keep moving and people were getting frustrated," another top exec said.

"Exhibition has been so beaten down," adds Wall Street analyst Eric Handler. "Now, there is at least hope that we can get back to normal next year. There are a lot of people who won't go back to theaters until there is a vaccine."

He's right. Nearly 30 percent of U.S. consumers surveyed by leading Hollywood marketing and research film NRG say they don't plan on going back to the movies until there is a vaccine.

While it's true that nearly 50 percent of theaters across the United States have reopened, they are operating at anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent capacity. In terms of content, they are relying on a diet of smaller Hollywood films and catalogue titles after studios delayed their fall and winter 2020 tentpoles.

On Monday, the National Association of Theatre Owners called on the lame-duck Congress to provide millions of dollars in relief to cinemas in the next several months, saying that 96 percent of theaters have seen losses this year of 70 percent of more.