Are local movie theaters in danger because of the COVID-19 virus?


Photo courtesy: Hannah Buehler

It seems the local cinema is going the woeful way of Blockbuster video—and at the hand of the same culprit, too.

Businesses across the U.S. have been knocked down by the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, but the small-town cinema might have a harder time than most getting back up.

COVID isn’t the main cause of the theater’s downfall, but it is the most important factor in a sort of perfect storm that’s spelling doom for cinemas at large.

Theaters began losing cultural traction long before COVID-19 ever existed. “ . . . the number of tickets sold in 2017 was the lowest since 1995,” said Wolf Richter, a reporter for Business Insider. This trend was present years before the virus was a thought in anyone’s mind, so clearly something else is afoot here. 

Part of the issue lies with the dwindling amount of movies hitting theaters in general. As studios like Disney amass more properties and fewer movies are made, fewer tickets are sold and theaters inflate their prices to stay afloat. “In fact, the average ticket price has more than doubled from $4.35 in 1995 to $8.90 in 2017,” Richter said in the same article.

Adding to this is the elephant in the room: digital release. Some of the biggest cultural successes of the past couple years weren’t even released in theaters: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Birdbox, for example, were both nationally celebrated Netflix originals.

Still, with Academy Awards requiring a theatrical release for consideration, most studios have been hesitant to make the switch, even if cutting out the middle man would mean a larger profit margin.

Enter COVID. Every major movie slated to release during the summer months was postponed, and theaters, for obvious reasons, shut down. It appeared the movie game was on pause. 

Until Universal Studios decided to hit play, releasing Trolls World Tour in theaters and on digital demand simultaneously to wild success. According to Universal, the film’s digital release had the most financially successful opening day and weekend on record, making 10 times more than second place.  

Obviously this is a big deal on the national level, but it seems too early to tell how or if these trends will affect Powell’s moviegoers.

“It’s been OK,” PHS senior and Twin Vali Cinema employee Sami Cole said about viewer turnout since reopening. “It’s been busier than it was before, when we were just doing throwback movies . . . some movies are starting to come out, but it’s still not as busy as it was before for sure.” 

New films don’t mean that theaters are out of the woods yet, though.

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was the first highly anticipated release to hit theaters since lockdown, and its domestic performance was far from the rallying cry many theater fans had hoped it to be, bringing in a meager $20 million nationally its opening weekend. 

The fate of the cinema is uncertain at best, but the short-term solution to Hollywood’s growing pileup of titles seems to definitively lie with streaming services, if the numbers are to be believed. Streaming services have killed before, and it seems the villain behind the demise of Blockbuster video and its kin has found its newest target.