Homer in the cinema Homer in the cinema

The summer blockbuster season is increasingly looking like a non-event and theater owners are more worried than ever. The debate around the reopening of venues has intensified this week, as coronavirus cases hit record levels across the country.

What’s happened? Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which was supposed to herald the return of cinemas when it opened in August, has been taken off the release calendar. Warner Bros. will “imminently” announce a new date later in the year, and has implied that it will release the film at different times in different markets, breaking with convention for this kind of major tentpole feature.

What does that mean for U.S. theaters? Bad news. Disney’s Mulan, now the only major tentpole due to come out this summer, is still down for an August 21 release. If that changes, theaters will be left with an empty August, and no way to entice audiences for the foreseeable future. A caveat: Warner Bros. could stagger their release within the U.S., as well as across the world, letting the film play first in cities where the situation is relatively safe.

How has the exhibition sector reacted to the change? With alarm, unsurprisingly. John Fithian, head of the lobby group National Association of Theatre Owners, argues that studios should stop delaying their releases, as there’s no sense in waiting for a vaccine. In an interview with Variety, he says, “Films should be released in markets where it is safe and legal to release them and that’s about 85% of markets in the U.S.”

Fithian insists that theaters have “the right safety protocols” in place and accused the media of exaggerating the risks of catching a movie. He notes that his industry is lobbying Congress for more financial support, adding, “The pandemic is an existential threat to the industry.”

So is it safe to visit a theater? The evaluation of risk depends on various factors, including your personal circumstances and local conditions. But it’s worth pointing to a few recent surveys of medical experts, in which they rate moviegoing among the riskier activities.

CBC Montreal spoke to 170 experts, of whom 75% said they wouldn’t go to the cinema within the next six months. The New York Times carried out a similar survey of 511 epidemiologists, and while it didn’t mention the movies, it asked the respondents when they would next attend a sporting event, concert, or play; 65% said they would wait at least a year. Cartoon Brew readers broadly agree.

Currently, under 17% of the country’s 5,440 movie theater locations are open, according to data from Comscore.

Bottomline: With each movie release delay, exhibitors are becoming more desperate and starting to support ideas that potentially endanger the safety of their audiences. The smartest medical advice for all Americans right now is to stay out of theaters, despite what movie theater lobbyists are telling you.

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