Amid Virus Crisis, Theater Owners Say Moviegoing "Will Return to Normal"

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NATO said the "majority of cinemas" are now closed in the U.S. but aimed to refute the notion that Hollywood studios will abandon them in the long term.

As major movie theater chains shutter across the U.S., the main lobbying group representing exhibitors on Tuesday aimed to assess the landscape and calm fears in the industry. 

"No one can precisely predict when public life will return to normal, but it will return," the National Association of Theatre Owners stated in a bullish note.

NATO looked to refute the notion that the unprecedented shutdown will lead to Hollywood studios bypassing traditional theatrical windows in the future.

"Although there has been speculation in the media that the temporary closure of theaters will lead to accelerated or exclusive releases of theatrical titles to home streaming, such speculation ignores the underlying financial logic of studio investment in theatrical titles," the statement said.

The theater group added, "While one or two releases may forgo theatrical release, it is our understanding from discussions with distributors that the vast majority of deferred releases will be rescheduled for theatrical release as life returns to normal."

On Monday night, AMC Theatres — the country's largest chain — announced it was shuttering for at least six to 12 weeks, potentially disrupting the prime summer release calendar.

Earlier the same day, NBCUniversal said it is releasing its current slate of films, along with April's Trolls World Tour, on premium VOD early because of the extraordinary circumstances facing the film industry. Disney also brought Frozen 2 to its streamer Disney+ early, while Warner Bros.' Birds of Prey and STX's The Gentlemen will be available earlier on demand and debut on March 24. 

NATO said the delay of high-profile tentpoles "will make for an even fuller slate of offerings than normal as they are slotted into an already robust release schedule later in the year."

The largest circuits in the U.S., including AMC Theatres (643 locations) and Regal Cinemas (543 locations), said Monday that they were temporarily shutting down all locations indefinitely. So, too, did smaller chains like Alamo Drafthouse, Showcase Cinemas, Landmark Theaters, ArcLight Cinemas and NCG Cinemas. 

On Tuesday, Disney unveiled more titles that it has pulled from its release schedule, including its May releases. Those include Marvel Studios' Black Widow (which had been set for a May 1 bow) as well as Searchlight's The Personal History of David Copperfield (May 8) and 20th's Amy Adams thriller Woman in the Window (May 15). 

Those join such previously delayed titles as Paramount's A Quiet Place Part II (set for March 20, but now undated), MGM's James Bond installment No Time to Die (moving from April to November) and Disney's Mulan (March 27 to undated). 

Major studios have halted most live-action production amid the pandemic. On Monday alone, Disney's Avatar sequels stopped filming in New Zealand, Warners' The Matrix 4 halted production and Sony's Cinderella and Uncharted were paused. 

The NATO statement is below.

With the pandemic Coronavirus outbreak, the world is facing a difficult and trying time. As the virus takes hold in different regions at different times and in varying degrees of severity, people and public health officials are grappling with decisions about when to close public-facing businesses and when to restrict personal activity. As with other businesses that serve large groups of people, movie theaters have faced voluntary and mandated restrictions and closures. The majority of movie theaters have now closed. This industry will continue to meet its responsibilities to the public and will abide by public health mandates and adapt to local conditions.

Our partners in movie distribution have postponed major new releases in response to the Coronavirus situation in markets around the world. Other titles beyond the immediate horizon have not changed their release dates.

Although there has been speculation in the media that the temporary closure of theaters will lead to accelerated or exclusive releases of theatrical titles to home streaming, such speculation ignores the underlying financial logic of studio investment in theatrical titles. To avoid catastrophic losses to the studios, these titles must have the fullest possible theatrical release around the world. While one or two releases may forgo theatrical release, it is our understanding from discussions with distributors that the vast majority of deferred releases will be rescheduled for theatrical release as life returns to normal.

When those titles are rescheduled, they will make for an even fuller slate of offerings than normal as they are slotted into an already robust release schedule later in the year.

No one can precisely predict when public life will return to normal, but it will return. The social nature of human beings — the thing that exposes us to contagion, and that makes it so difficult to change behavior in response to pandemic threats — is also the thing that gives us confidence in the future. People will return to movie theaters because that is who people are. When they return they will rediscover a cutting edge, immersive entertainment experience that they have been forcefully reminded they cannot replicate at home. In the uncertain, difficult economy ahead, movie theaters will fill the role they always have in boom times and in recessions — the most popular, affordable entertainment available outside the home.

While movie theaters will suffer some financial harm in the near term, and many of their 150,000 employees will face personal hardship, when this crisis passes and people return to their hard-wired social nature, movie theaters will be there for them as they have always been, with a full slate of movies far into the future.