Sociologist Says Moviegoing Experience Not Enough For Audiences to Return to Theaters After Coronavirus Closures

A sociologist predicts audiences won't deem any movie "worth it" enough to return to reopened theaters just months after exhibitors were forced to shutter amid the coronavirus crisis. Michael Ian Borer, a sociology professor who also teaches a pop culture course at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says the allure of the moviegoing experience that only theaters can offer — like the viral reactions of an audience recorded during a showing of Marvel Studios blockbuster Avengers: Endgame — won't be enough to sway audiences to venture out into theaters anytime soon, even as some domestic theaters begin to slowly reopen.

"There is research that says the enjoyment of a movie can be increased when you're around others. So if you're hearing others laugh or 'ooh' and 'ahh' at the same thing, that can enhance one’s experience," Borer told the Review Journal. "Now is that enough of a carrot to get people to go out to see a film in a theater? I don't think that carrot's big enough. I don't think it's worth it enough, because there are so many other options that are quote-unquote safer."

Warner Bros. plans to find out with the Christopher Nolan-directed Tenet, which never moved from its scheduled July 17 opening date. The anticipated new movie from the director of blockbusters The Dark Knight and Inception is currently planned as the first major offering to moviegoers, who Borer expects to be slow to return to theaters.

"I think people are going to be hesitant for a while," he said. "It's going to have to be pitched to them that it's worth it to get out, see this together, see it on the big screen. I don't know what that movie looks like. If I did, I'd be making a lot more money right now."

Some movies developed for the big screen — most notably Universal's animated Trolls World Tour and Warner Bros.' animated Scoob! — skipped their planned theatrical runs and were offered at-home on premium video on demand platforms. Universal previously offered up Blumhouse-produced The Invisible Man and The Hunt for rental, priced at $19.99, after those movies had their theatrical windows shortened by movie theater closures.

Others, like Disney's Artemis Fowl, were pulled from theatrical release and sent to streaming. Among the biggest scheduling changes to Disney's 2020 slate: the delay of its live-action Mulan, pushed from March 27 to July 24, and Marvel's Black Widow, pushed from its May 1 opening to November 6. Pixar's Soul, once scheduled for mid-June, was also postponed until the fall.

Both Hollywood and exhibitors are hopeful theatergoing resumes in July, even if that means reopening theaters with limited capacity.

That's made possible by a less crowded 2020: while some films, like Warner Bros. tentpole Wonder Woman 1984, remain scheduled to open this year — the Gal Gadot-starring superhero sequel was pushed from early June to mid-August because of the pandemic — others, like Sony's Morbius, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and Venom: Let There Be Carnage, all abandoned their 2020 release dates and will instead open next year. Universal did the same, pushing expected blockbuster Fast & Furious 9 from May 22 of this year to April 2021.

Disney is among the major players who have already confirmed tentpoles like Mulan and Black Widow will not be skipping theatrical windows for streaming, whether that be a release on the Disney+ streaming service or premium VOD.

While Borer predicts audiences will be hesitant to again share spaces with others in theaters, Disney CEO Bob Chapek believes there exists "pent-up" demand for the company's postponed feature films.

"I think it's going to be a stair step situation, just like it's going to be in our [theme] parks," Chapek said during a recent appearance on CNBC. "I think there's a lot of pent-up demand, on the other hand, that viewers, fans of movies want to go see."

The executive also said Disney must be able to "balance people's anxieties about going out in public with the pent-up demand" for its movies, adding, "Whether you're talking about movie theaters or whether you're talking about theme parks, and as long as we can do so in a relatively safe, responsible way, I think that's going to be important for the exhibitors to consider all factors when they make their decisions to open up."

The Invisible Man and The Hunt producer Jason Blum expects theatergoing to change in the wake of coronavirus, arguing audiences will continue to want to see movies in theaters.

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"To me, watching a movie on TV or a show on TV or streaming is the equivalent to a Zoom call, whereas seeing a movie in a theater is the equivalent of a live meeting," Blum recently told the Los Angeles Times. "As much as theaters are clearly suffering now, I think the choice that people have in theaters may change, the amount of time that movies stay in theaters may change, but I don't think theatergoing is going away."

"It's going to change," he added, "but I don't think it's going away."

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