Moviegoing Teeters After 700 Theaters Reclose Overnight in North America

Amid an alarming surge in COVID-19 cases, 646 theaters closed late last week in the U.S., along with 60 locations in Canada.

It's no surprise why box office observers are trying to not freak out.

Over the Nov. 20-22 weekend, Blumhouse and Universal's campy body-swap reboot Freaky came in at No. 1 with $1.2 million in its second outing, a steep 66 percent drop. That's by far one of the lowest chart-topping grosses of all time — much less for the weekend before Thanksgiving, one of the most lucrative corridors of the year for moviegoing. Normally, the film itself would be blamed. But not in this case.

Heading into the weekend, 646 movie theaters in the U.S. closed down again virtually overnight amid an alarming surge in COVID-19 cases, according to Comscore. There were also 60 cinema reclosures in Canada, meaning that in the span of several days, the North American box office lost 706 locations compared to a week ago.

Domestic revenue for the weekend came in at anywhere from $4 million to $5 million — a final tally will be revealed Monday — down as much as 50 percent from the previous frame and the lowest since the box office recovery began in late August with the release of Unhinged and then Tenet.

That recovery was already strained. Cinemas in Los Angeles and New York City have never been allowed to reopen, posing a major hurdle. Without the two largest moviegoing markets in play, most Hollywood studios delayed their fall and year-end holiday event pics, leaving cinema operators without tentpole product to show. Some circuits began reducing hours, while Cineworld last month indefinitely closed the 400 or so Regal locations it had reopened in the U.S.

However, the latest round of closures has been the most dramatic to date. Nor is anyone sure how many more are yet to come amid the surge. Last week, in a preemptive move, Warner Bros. announced that Wonder Woman 1984 will debut on Christmas Day in whatever North American cinemas remain open as well as on HBO Max. (Overseas, including China, the superhero sequel will attempt a traditional theatrical run.)

"It’s tough as more and more are closed due to forced restrictions by local government authority. I think those that are allowed to open are staying open as long as they can cover their variable costs," says Wall Street analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners.

Adds Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore: "Given the limited number of open theaters, the holiday movie season will be tasked with bridging the gap between this most challenging period and when the cinematic cavalry arrives in the form of what on paper looks to be a truly spectacular 2021 slate of blockbusters. The adage, 'It's always darkest before the dawn,' certainly applies here. Theaters need new high-profile films to drive audiences to the multiplex, but unfortunately, those are in short supply in the coming weeks."

The major exceptions are Universal's animated sequel The Croods: A New Age, which debuts Wednesday in advance of Thanksgiving weekend, and Paul Greengrass' Christmas Day release News of the World, starring Tom Hanks. Universal has stayed in the theatrical release game by striking a landmark deal with top exhibitors allowing the studio to make its films available early on premium VOD.

According to Comscore, there were 2,154 theaters open in the U.S. over the Nov. 20-22 weekend, or roughly 40 percent of the country's 5,449 locations. That's down from 2,800 locations open over the Nov. 13-15 weekend, or 51 percent of all cinemas.

Factoring in Canada, the total number of theaters open in North American dropped from 3,096 sites over the Nov. 13-15 weekend to 2,390 theaters over the Nov. 13-15 frame, per Comscore.

The weighted box office — i.e., a ranking of theaters in terms of the revenue they contribute to the overall pie — is likewise dropping. At one point this fall, 86 percent of the market was open. That fell to 62.5 percent over the Nov. 20-22 weekend.

Analysts are banking on a vaccine to reverse the crisis and result in a renaissance in terms of the big screen.

"Movie theaters over the decades have proven to be extraordinarily resilient and have survived every challenge from the pandemic of 1918, through the Great Depression to the introduction of TV through the home theater revolution and now the streaming boom," says Dergarabedian. "COVID-19 has presented a modern-era challenge like no other, and weathering this storm will be no easy task, but if history tells us anything it's that the movie theater experience is an essential component of the entertainment ecosystem and thus will find a way to survive."