Last year, in late March, the people of China received a surprising bit of good news: More than 500 movie theaters in the country would reopen, roughly three months after COVID-19 first began ravaging Wuhan. Any delight was short lived, however. A wave of infected travelers passing through China’s borders led to an uptick in cases, prompting the country’s film bureau to reverse its decision just days later. It was an early example of the start-stop nature of pandemic reopenings, which would become all too familiar for people in the U.S. as well. By fall, the most anticipated movie of the year—Christopher Nolan’s Tenet—had been delayed three times, while Regal once again closed all 536 of its U.S. theaters, citing “an increasingly challenging theatrical landscape.”
Now, though, the virus is largely under control in China. Movie theaters have been completely reopened, and have remained so since late July—and a lot of people are going to see movies. The time-travel comedy Hi, Mom—dubbed the Chinese Back to the Future by some—eclipsed more than $700 million at the box office by the end of February, just three weeks after its theatrical release. That puts it in the company of Black Panther and James Cameron’s Avatar, and on course to become the country’s second-highest-grossing film of all time. Meanwhile, with $397 million in its first three days in theaters, the buddy cop installment Detective Chinatown 3 managed to set a world record for the largest opening weekend in a single market—beating Avengers: Endgame. Even mediocre reviews couldn’t stop Detective from smashing the Avengers’ mark by roughly $40 million.
China is in a more advanced stage of its pandemic recovery, but such a swift return to theaters is a promising sign something similar could happen in the U.S. There’s evidence it’s happening already: Tom and Jerry, a recognizable but only modestly popular franchise, opened with a surprisingly strong $14 million two weeks ago. During the pandemic, only Wonder Woman 1984 topped that number with a $17 million opening. “[Tom and Jerry] blew away any forecasts and expectations,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro. “Up until that point, most movies [during the pandemic] were opening at $4-5 million a weekend.”
That’s because even as theaters managed to reopen in parts of the country, social distancing mandates dramatically reduced attendance, while venues in major metropolitan centers like New York City and Los Angeles remained closed indefinitely. The depleted moviegoing population made studios wary of releasing new films, with delay after delay further diminishing consumer interest—and box office sales. But a big change occurred last week: On Wednesday, the doors to San Francisco’s cinemas reopened, while New York’s followed suit on Friday.
While capped at 25 percent capacity for now, the reopenings in these cultural hubs are a beacon of hope for theaters. New York’s theaters, in particular, are notable, not only because the 62 theaters in the five boroughs alone represent a significant 3 percent of total U.S. movie ticket sales, according to Comscore, but because their resurgence has emblematic meaning. “New York is an entertainment epicenter and was hard hit by the virus,” says Comscore’s senior media analyst, Paul Dergarabedian. “That’s why its reopening is so symbolically important.” Adds Robbins: “It’s going to play a major role and start some momentum. When the cultural capital and marketing engine that is New York is awakened, people outside that area will see the news and there will be a buzz that going to the movies is a thing again.”
Of course, that is assuming case rates stay low while vaccine distribution continues to progress. If they do, newer movie releases could help generate buzz as well. Disney’s animated adventure Raya and the Last Dragon opened with a meager $8.6 million domestically, though with the huge caveat that the nation’s third-largest theater chain, Cinemark, didn’t show the movie, seemingly in protest to Raya’s simultaneous release on Disney+. Godzilla vs. Kong and Mortal Kombat, out March 31 and April 16, respectively, might be better barometers of the enthusiasm for a return to cinemas. But the real test could be Marvel’s Black Widow, for now due out May 7. Perhaps even more important than the money it makes is whether Disney commits to that release date. Even if it shuffles the release by three to five weeks, that would indicate the studio’s confidence in the overall vaccine development to push forward with theater releases sooner, rather than delaying by months, or releasing on a service like Disney+.
As for those streaming platforms, it’s unclear how much they’ll impact moviegoing once things return to a relative state of normalcy. Since December, when WarnerMedia shocked the entertainment world by announcing it would release its 2021 movies simultaneously on HBO Max, industry observers have wondered whether such a move would precipitate the beginning of the end for cinemas as we know them. If people can watch brand-new blockbusters from the comfort of their homes, the more pessimistic readings went, they’ll never be inclined to return to theaters, even in a fully post-COVID world. But the developments in China suggest that isn’t the case at all.
“It would be like saying takeout will be the way of the future instead of restaurants, that people will shift from outside the home to inside the home,” says Dergarabedian. “The success of China points to the fact that audiences are embracing the communal experience of theaters. Drive-ins last year told us a lot about that, too. I don’t see these as adversarial offerings—the small screen and the big screen are not natural enemies, they can complement each other.”
With cinemas in New York and San Francisco rejoining the fray, more than half of the nation’s theaters are now open. While Dergarabedian thinks that normal box office levels won’t fully return until next year, he says that a $50 million opening will be a good indication that moviegoing has officially turned the corner. It may prove too soon for Black Widow, A Quiet Place Part II (due out May 28), or Fast 9 (June 25) to reel in a total like that. But looking further down the road, a blockbuster tentpole like Dune (October 1) or The Matrix 4 (December 22) might pull it off.
“It’s hard to completely compare with China, because they were ahead of the curve with the virus, but they weren’t alone in terms of moviegoing populations going back. Korea, Japan, Spain, France—even though they had lockdowns, when they reopened there was a big demand,” says Robbins. “It proves there’s a universal appeal to going to the movies.”