Casablanca. Lawrence of Arabia. 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Philadelphia Story. North by Northwest. Jaws. A Hard Day’s Night. Dr. Strangelove. Singing in the Rain. The Wizard of Oz.
What do these titles have in common? They’re some of the classic movies I’ve had the pleasure to see on the big screen. Films which American moviegoers should have the opportunity to experience as studios and theater operators look to lure them back once the coronavirus shutdowns are over.
What customers are unlikely to be seeing anytime soon on screens at AMC, Cinemark, Regal, and other chains are the usual array of blockbusters and sequels. Numerous releases, such as the latest James Bond flick, No Time to Die (originally scheduled for April 10), and Marvel’s next offering, Black Widow (May 1), were pushed into the fall.
A few high-profile films are still scheduled for the summer, such as Disney’s Mulan (originally March 27, now July 24) and Christopher Nolan’s next epic, Tenet, which Warner Bros. hasn’t shifted yet from its July 17 debut out of deference to Nolan, who has pledged to use his movie as a lifeline for exhibitors. But those are exceptions and the studios are likely to postpone them.
They’d be foolish not to. Even after theaters reopen, many Americans will be hesitant to return. Moreover, coronavirus restrictions are likely to be loosened at different times in different parts of the country. Theaters may be operating in one part of the U.S. but not another. Moreover, social distancing guidelines will reduce the amount of tickets that can be sold, cutting that source of revenue.
A studio isn’t going to push a $200 million franchise film out if half the country can’t see it. And many foreign markets, from which studios derive an increasing share of income, could stay closed after the U.S. reopens. Tentpole pictures are major financial investments. Introducing them into such an uncertain marketplace would just compound the losses they’ve already suffered.
Theaters would take an additional hit, too. They generate most of their revenue from concessions. Empty seats means no one buying $7 sodas and $10 popcorn. Then again, seats filled with patrons wearing masks would also mean no one buying those lucrative staples. Yet that is an increasingly likely possibility as authorities in various localities mandate facial coverings in indoor public spaces. Not to mention it might dissuade those who need glasses. Masks are notorious for causing them to fog up. Who’d want to spend two hours in a theater knowing they’d be unable to see the screen with their glasses fogged up the whole time?
Opening up to show the next Wonder Woman movie (bumped from June to August) under such conditions makes no more sense for the cinema conglomerates than it does the entertainment conglomerates. But at some point multiplexes will start up again and they’ll need something to put on their 6, 12, or 24 screens.
Here’s where classic movies come in. The studios have vast libraries of films they can choose from to fill the gap while they hold their big budget fare back. Many theaters already show classic movies in the form of the TCM Big Screen Classics series presented by the cable channel Turner Classic Movies. Recent entries include King Kong, Meet Me in St. Louis, and My Fair Lady.
The TCM series, however, only shows one movie a month. That would hardly fill 24 screens. Theaters would need to show a dozen or more at the same time. Which they could. Many classic films are in digital format now (it’s how the TCM selections are screened), so there would be no issue of delivering prints to theaters. Publicity costs would be minimal, too. Advertising budgets for modern blockbusters can equal production costs. The amount spent to publicize the return of Casablanca to theaters would likely be somewhat less than that.
Imagine a marquee filled with titles like Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, The Sound of Music, you name it. This is an ideal opportunity to introduce new generations to the genius of Alfred Hitchcock and the great silent comedians Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton.
Twenty-four screens of classic movies, delightful as it sounds, is an unlikely prospect. Many poor, benighted individuals find such fare too niche, too esoteric, for their tastes. Yet even if a multiplex devoted a dozen screens to them, that would still leave another dozen for alternative programming.
Alternative programming like the contents of Disney’s immense catalog (which now includes the 20th Century Fox film library). The House of Mouse could fill a theater by itself. Think of the possibilities: the Star Wars and Marvel franchises, animated treasures like Bambi and Pinocchio, and the hundreds of live-action movies it’s released over the years. Anyone for The Love Bug and The Cat from Outer Space?
Joe Russo, who co-directed the two final Avengers movies with his brother, Anthony, recently expressed his support for bringing them back once the lockdowns end as a way of generating revenue for theaters. “‘Using those films to get people back into the theaters? We would be ecstatic,’ Joe Russo said. ‘Any opportunity for people to go back and share in those stories together is one that we would support.’”
Franchise films like Avengers and Star Wars have in-built audiences. They’re the kind of movie people love to see again and again in the theater. And, judging by my own experiences, they also love seeing classics they’ve only ever seen on TV on the big screen. The TCM events always seem to have large turnouts. If anything could get people back into seats at the local multiplex, its these types of films: beloved classics and huge franchises.
Theaters are already opening in Texas. Eventually they’ll open across the country. President Trump wants them to. Movie fans no doubt do, too. Though subjecting them to TSA-style security theater to get in might deter some of them.
Going to the movies is one of the things I miss most about pre-COVID-19 life. As a subscriber to AMC’s A-List program, I saw dozens of movies a year. Those were new movies, of course. Seeing dozens of new movies the rest of 2020 isn’t on the horizon. But seeing Star Wars again or The Adventures of Robin Hood in its glorious Technicolor for the first time wouldn’t be a bad substitute.
As Anick Jesdanun, a technology editor for the Associated Press who died of the coronavirus in April, wrote last year, “if you really want to savor a film, there’s still no substitute for a movie theater.” And that’s true no matter how big or small the film. So get those popcorn machines and digital projectors ready. We movie fans are waiting.