When Will Movie Theaters Actually Reopen?

One of the major theater chains is aiming for August 21 but it's not a guarantee.

movie theaters
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Ever since the coronavirus pandemic started, the movie industry has been in a state of flux. With large gatherings still prohibited, theatrical releases have been put on hold, for good reason -- the idea of being in a windowless, air-conditioned room with a bunch of strangers shoving popcorn into their mouths with their germy hands sounds like a nightmarish proposition. So when are we going back to the movies? 

This week, according to Deadline, Regal announced plans to open US theaters August 21. That coincides with the latest release date for Christopher Nolan's Tenet, which has jumped around the calendar all summer, finally landing on a planned September 3 debut in the states. AMC, the other big theater chain, hasn't set an exact date for reopening yet after a couple of false starts in July, but now is aiming to start putting butts in seats in mid-to-late August. But will anyone actually go? 

"Welcoming theatergoers back to our cinemas will be a celebration for not only our team and our industry, but most importantly for the fans who have been anxiously awaiting the year’s upcoming releases," said Mooky Greidinger, the CEO of Regal's parent company Cineworld in a statement to Deadline, sounding incredibly optimistic. Currently, there are no new releases on the theatrical schedule before August 21, when the Russell Crowe thriller Unhinged is supposed to drop. But -- let's be real -- that's not the movie that anyone's really banking on luring people back into theaters. No, the chains have pinned their hopes (and money) on Nolan's mysterious new blockbuster that may or may not be a palindrome and keeps pushing its release back. 

Both Regal and AMC have safety procedures in place, though no one knows if they will be enough to make audiences comfortable. Regal will limit attendance to 50% capacity in states where it is required, while AMC is reducing occupancy by 30 percent or less "based on municipality guidelines." After initially not mandating masks among guests, AMC changed its tune after it received a rightful amount of public shaming. Still, both companies are allowing people to remove face coverings for the purposes of munching on concessions. 

For chains like AMC and Regal, survival is contingent on theaters reopening. But just what a "theatrical release" means is already shifting. AMC and Universal -- which were feuding over the home release of Trolls World Tour back in April -- reached an agreement that will allow the studio to drop their movies on digital platforms a mere three weeks after premiering in theaters. (Before this, studios had to wait three months.) Having an exclusive window was crucial to a company like AMC's dominance and now it is slipping away.

If the virus continues spreading at its current rate, it seems unlikely that any of this will actually be relevant come August. Disney has already given up hope on the summer entirely, moving Mulanentirely off of the calendar. Tenet could very well move again. Meanwhile, cinephiles are looking ahead to fall, with festivals unveiling their lineups. This week, it was revealed that Chloé Zhao's Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand, will be the centerpiece at New York Film Festival and will have simultaneous screenings at the Toronto and Venice film festivals. Will theaters be open by then? Honestly, who knows. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.