When movie audiences return, will theaters still be there in the suburbs?
The question that haunts me most about our endangered local movie theaters is this: What if by the time audiences finally return, there aren't any theaters to return to?
America's movie theaters, already hanging on by their financial fingernails during the COVID-19 pandemic, face an even bleaker future now that 2020's last surefire blockbuster, 007's "No Time to Die," has abandoned its November release date and fled to 2021.
It joins Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story," Denis Villeneuve's "Dune," Cate Shortland's "Black Widow" and other eagerly anticipated films seeking economic asylum in 2021 to dodge the virus that has crippled America's theater industry.
Monday gave us a bleak peek at this possible future when Regal Cinemas -- the nation's second-largest theater chain after AMC -- announced the closing of its 536 cinemas in the U.S., including theaters in Lake Zurich, Lincolnshire, Warrenville, Round Lake Beach, Crystal Lake and Glenview.
Chris Johnson summed up the situation in three words: "It's been horrible!"
Johnson, CEO of the Downers Grove-based Classic Cinemas, said exhibitors need two things to stay solvent until the virus subsides or someone creates a vaccine: partners and support.
That, plus a few blockbusters to shore up the finances.
Classic Cinemas' Illinois locations, including those in Carpentersville, St. Charles, Elk Grove Village, Elmhurst, Downers Grove and Fox Lake, reopened in June but closed again July 9 "because we didn't have any compelling tentpole movies on the schedule," he said. "If we can't get a consistent supply of attractive movies, we won't be able to maintain our businesses."
But that will not be easy. Especially because Johnson and other exhibitors are trapped in a dire, Catch-22 scenario.
To lure audiences back into theaters, exhibitors need spectacular blockbusters such as "No Time to Die."
For theaters to get those spectacular blockbusters, the studios need big, BIG audiences so they can recoup their spectacular budgets. ("Tenet" reportedly cost $205 million. "No Time to Die" reportedly cost $250 million -- and the move to 2021 cost up to $50 million in wasted promotions and advertising.)
That brings us to the huge New York movie market, which remains closed.
"As long as New York is closed, the studios won't release their blockbusters," Johnson said. "That affects all of us."
With little relief in sight, the National Association of Theatre Owners sized up the situation in this written statement: "If the status quo continues, 69% of small and mid-size movie theater companies will be forced to file for bankruptcy or to close permanently."
Along with Regal's U.S. locations, its 127 Cineworld and Picturehouse venues in the U.K. are closing, with a total of about 45,000 employees losing their jobs.
Even if New York suddenly opened its theater doors, exhibitors face yet another obstacle to financial solvency: Will the public feel safe enough to return to their local movie houses in sufficient numbers?
They should, Johnson said. He points to restaurants and bars as the sources of COVID-19 outbreaks and pitches movie theaters as some of the safest places for people to be for several reasons:
1. Everyone in the auditorium is facing the same direction.
2. Patrons generally don't talk to each other during the film. ("They text, maybe, but they don't talk," he said.)
3. Auditoriums have been redesigned for social distancing.
4. Wearing masks is mandatory.
5. New equipment provides improved air circulation in theaters.
"You can tell in 30 seconds if you feel safe in a theater," Johnson said. "We take safety seriously. We have to. Otherwise how can we expect anyone to come back?"
Still, I keep coming back to my original question: Can theaters survive long enough to get those patrons back in the seats?
Marvel Studios is betting on it, with eight film releases between the new May 7 date for "Black Widow" and "Captain Marvel 2" on July 8, 2022, Variety reported Wednesday.
Johnson is hoping that a Federal Reserve program called Main Street Lending (to support businesses in sound financial condition before the pandemic) can provide Classic Cinemas and other theaters with loans to keep them afloat.
Meanwhile, the theater owners association is campaigning to have movie theaters added to the federal coronavirus relief package implemented earlier this year and the proposed RESTART Act that would send stimulus packages to the exhibition industry.
For now, exhibitors are focused on the most important time of the year for box office returns: Christmas week.
"It's a huge week for us," Johnson said. "Massive. People kick off the Christmas holidays by going to the movies."
Can "Wonder Woman 1984" pull off a wonder by attracting huge crowds on Dec. 25?
For the moment at least, movie theaters have time to die another day.