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How Movie Theaters Are Surviving The Pandemic

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

007's license to kill has claimed its latest victim. Shortly after the James Bond film "No Time To Die" pushed its already delayed fall opening to next year, Regal Cinemas - that's the nation's second-largest theater chain - it announced it would suspend operations at all its recently reopened U.S. theaters. Well, back in May, we aired a report from Bob Mondello about how theater owners had been faring during the first month of the pandemic shutdown. It seemed a good moment for Bob to check in with them again.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The theatrical landscape was bleak in May - no new Hollywood films in more than a month, the big three cinema chains - AMC, Regal and Cinemark - all saying they'd be closed at least through June. Chris Escobar, who owns Atlanta's Plaza Theatre, told me at the time that even with Georgia's governor allowing theaters to open, he wasn't willing to ask his employees to choose between their livelihoods and their lives. Since then, he's found ways to keep them safer and patrons, too.

CHRIS ESCOBAR: A lot has changed. I was nervous and uncertain. Cut to today. I only drive around in dune buggies, always masked, playing flamethrower guitar off the end of a semitrailer. It's straight up "Mad Max" now.

MONDELLO: He's kidding about everything but the masks, but he's serious about the weirdness of the way he's having to operate - temperature scans, contact-free ticketing, seating limited to one-tenth of capacity - about 50 seats - virtual screenings online and two pop-up drive-ins in nearby parking lots.

ESCOBAR: Even though we've found workarounds, it's not like, you know, problem solved, mission accomplished. It's have way more expenses, way more, you know, risk for a much more limited reward.

MONDELLO: The industry's original plan, he remembers, was that once a big must-see blockbuster brought moviegoers back to cinemas, audience floodgates would open. To prepare, Escobar outfitted the Plaza for a 70 mm projection.

ESCOBAR: And it just so happens that the director, who insists on there being at least a limited number of 70 mm prints, is the golden child that everyone's been holding their breath to open theaters, Christopher Nolan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TENET")

MARTIN DONOVAN: (As Fay) All I have for you is a word - tenet.

ESCOBAR: I opened "Tenet" on 70 mm, and I'm one of five movie theaters in the country that did that.

MONDELLO: And he did well. But "Tenet's" national box office numbers were only OK. And that has led Hollywood studios to postpone most of their major fall premieres - not just "No Time To Die," but "Black Widow," "Death On The Nile," the Steven Spielberg musical "West Side Story." With nothing new in theaters, audiences aren't coming. And every week, the national box office numbers drop - from $28 million over the Labor Day holiday to just $8 million this past weekend. I won't bore you with the math, but spread across all of the movies on all of the nation's reopened screens, that works out, on average, to maybe five people per screening. Obviously, some shows are empty, while others have more patrons.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TENET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Don't try to understand it. Feel it.

MONDELLO: But that's hardly sustainable. Small wonder the Regal Cinema chain will go dark again on Thursday and that Chris Collier, the executive director of Renew Theaters, never even got to open his four arthouse cinemas in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

CHRIS COLLIER: I know of a number of theaters that opened over the summer with the expectation that new content was coming down the road and weren't able to make the numbers match up and had to close again.

MONDELLO: What Collier's done - more to stay in touch with his patrons than to make money - is in-the-park movies on an inflatable screen.

COLLIER: The first time we did it, we hadn't shown a movie to the public in 21 weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BACK TO THE FUTURE")

MICHAEL J FOX: (As Marty McFly) Yo.

CHRISTOPHER LLOYD: (As Doc Brown) Marty, is that you?

FOX: (As Marty McFly) Hey. Hey, Doc.

MONDELLO: They started with the original "Back To The Future."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BACK TO THE FUTURE")

LLOYD: (As Doc Brown) Can you meet me at Twin Pines Mall tonight at 1:15? I've made a major breakthrough, and I'll need your assistance.

COLLIER: That was really fun to see the moon just hanging right above the screen there. And people just had a really wonderful time.

MONDELLO: To have it make financial sense, though, is another matter. Collier says his four theaters can't make the numbers work yet. And Escobar says at Atlanta's Plaza, even with "Tenet," it hasn't been easy.

ESCOBAR: We're making payroll right now because we're firing on many cylinders, meaning we've got the indoor and the drive-in and the virtual. But really, the way this makes sense ultimately is to find ways to safely scale up. And then that's when it's like, OK, now we start making up for the hole that we had from being closed for six months.

MONDELLO: A hole made deeper by the cost of keeping staff and patrons safe. At the Plaza, besides deep cleaning and taking temperatures, they create a checkerboard seating pattern and then flip it between shows so no two patrons ever sit in the same seat on the same day.

ESCOBAR: What you're allowed to do and what you should do are not necessarily the same thing. Even if I were to just go, OK, I'm only going to take the limitations and the caution that the state government is telling me to do - doesn't mean the customers will come. So to me, it is worth it to go above and beyond.

MONDELLO: And for how long? Both men say 2021 at least.

ESCOBAR: I think the next three months are not that different from where we are now, honestly. I mean, I believe we'll be able to scale up safely, but I'm expecting that it's going to be some version of this through next summer.

MONDELLO: A long time for a business that depends on crowds and that views movie streaming as an existential threat, though as Collier notes, theaters have already survived TV, DVDs.

COLLIER: People talk about the death of movies, but the fact that people are flocking to drive-ins for that communal experience shows that that experience is going to live on. Even if they can't go into theaters, we're finding other ways to make it happen.

MONDELLO: Chris Collier of Renew Theaters looking back to his industry's future. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK IN TIME")

HUEY LEWIS AND THE NEWS: (Singing) Got to get back in time, got to get back in time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.