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Movie theaters are struggling to survive the pandemic. Many won't

Posted October 5, 2020 4:12 p.m. EDT

— The US movie theater industry has been clinging to the hope that a future blockbuster would save its devastated business. But with Regal Cinemas' plans to suspend operations again, it's clear that 2020 is likely over for the movies.

Cineworld Group, the owner of Regal Cinemas, said Sunday it would suspend operations at all of its theaters in the United States and the United Kingdom as coronavirus cases continue to spread. The news sent the company's London-listed stock down as much as 60% Monday.

And it could be only a matter of time until other major movie theater chains follow suit, according to Jeff Bock, a senior analyst at entertainment research firm Exhibitor Relations.

"Imagine if you were on a cruise ship lost in the Bermuda Triangle — that's about how bad the domestic cinema situation is right now," Jeff Bock, a senior analyst at entertainment research firm Exhibitor Relations told CNN Business.

This is the worst-case scenario for movie theaters, Bock said, noting that "Plan B doesn't even exist."

"The virus is simply an antagonist that cannot be overcome by buzzwords, super-powered reviews, or marketing prowess," he added.

Delays, delays and more delays

Cineworld's closures followed weeks of anemic box office returns and studios choosing to delay films rather than open them to mostly empty auditoriums.

First, theaters had pinned their hopes to "Tenet," but the Christopher Nolan thriller never found a US audience. Then it was Marvel film "Black Widow," which instead pushed to next year. Finally they turned desperately to the James Bond title "No Time to Die," but it too was delayed to 2021.

After "No Time to Die" was moved, theaters were left without many films to offer between now and the end of the year. Sure, there's Pixar's "Soul" currently set for November and "Wonder Woman 1984" slated for December, but there are no guarantees those films will hit theaters then, either.

Regal decided it was better to be closed entirely than operate with nothing to offer -- and other chains may soon do the same. While others haven't announced plans to close, the outlook doesn't look good, according to Bock.

"We have to prepare for the inevitability that one, or more, of the major chains may not survive if this situation continues to lurch into next summer," Bock said. "The number of movie theaters that will close on a permanent basis will be directly proportional to how long it takes the US to stomp out the virus."

'Forces out of their control'

Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com, told CNN Business that "the writing's been on the wall for a few weeks," but now movie theaters are "facing a reality that there are forces out of their control at this point."

"Even with big movies opening in theaters, it was always going to be a while before we reached any sense of normalcy at the movies again," he said. "Now that return to normalcy, like so many movies this year, has been delayed until further notice."

Since closing in March because of the outbreak, theaters have attempted to reopen many times with new health and safety protocols. However, theaters could never truly get their footing: Movies were delayed, some major markets like New York stayed closed while others reopened and audiences simply are not showing up.

Robbins said that there's been "a cycle of blame" between the theaters, studios and local governments, which has made it difficult for theaters to reopen and stay operational.

"We can't point the finger at any one source," Robbins said. "Theaters are blaming studios, studios and theaters are blaming local governments like New York that haven't opened yet and everyone is rightfully blaming the virus."

So what can movie theaters, one of the country's oldest cultural institutions, do to survive what appears to be a dark winter? Robbins believes that if theaters want to salvage their future, the various entities need to get on the same page.

"Theaters have been caught between a rock and a hard place," Robbins said. "But there needs to be drastically more communication and coordination between local governments and studios before theaters can confidently resume full-time operations. There is no perfect blueprint, but what's been done so far hasn't been enough."

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