The COVID-19 pandemic is doing in seven months what television, cable-TV, pay-TV and streaming services have failed to do for the past 70 years.
It’s killing the movie business.
In 2019, films raked in more than US$11 billion in box office in North America, despite selling roughly the same number of movie tickets as cinemas did in 1995. Higher ticket prices led to more than doubling the revenue movies amassed in 2019 when compared with financial results 24 years earlier.
So far in 2020, movies have earned a paltry US$240 million, according to industry sources. The losses are so staggering that AMC Theatres, the world’s largest movie-theatre chain, reported its attendance is down 85 per cent and it may run out of cash as early as the end of the year.
On Oct. 8, Regal Cinemas, the second-largest U.S. movie-theatre chain, closed its 536 theatres, owing to the pandemic and the postponement of most blockbuster movie releases. The new James Bond film, No Time To Die, for instance, has been set aside twice and won’t hit the silver screen until April 2021 as producers wait for larger audiences so it can recoup its enormous production budget.
Live entertainment companies and venues are also on a cliff’s edge. Broadway, the epicentre of the live theatre world, has extended its shutdown to May 2021. By then, New York’s famous theatre district will have gone more than a year without an actor uttering a line or a song being sung.
Winnipeg’s two major theatre companies, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and Prairie Theatre Exchange, have shelved their original schedules for much of the 2020-21 season, choosing to stage smaller shows with smaller audiences or online performances to keep stage fans interested.
The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra had to lay off its musicians for a time after the pandemic wiped out its 2019-20 season in March. It also reported its first operating deficit in 13 years due to the cancellations.
It has since soldiered on with a revamped new season, performing before an audience of a few hundred physically distanced people on Oct. 2 and 3 at the Centennial Concert Hall but recent pops concerts were postponed when COVID-19 numbers shot up in the city.
The federal government and private donors have helped keep local arts groups from going under in 2020, but companies can’t go on forever without a show to put on for audiences.
And as much as some skeptical observers say the process of consuming popular culture has been made easier by the pandemic’s stay-at-home directives, the simple fact of the matter is that theatrical entertainment has been a defining element of our shared cultural experience for generations. The permanent shuttering of theatres would leave us diminished in hard-to-define ways.
In the meantime, people have looked elsewhere to entertain themselves during the pandemic. New habits have been learned and new hobbies given a chance. We’ve read more, walked and hiked more, and watched more television. We’ve also occasionally been bored beyond belief.
There will come a time when it’s safe to gather once again in cinemas, theatres and concert halls. When the light returns to stages and screens, we owe it to them to return to our old routines and support theatrical performances.
We will also owe it to ourselves, because we will have learned what life’s like without them.