Movie theaters are reopening. We asked an expert if it's safe to go

New York (CNN Business)“Tenet” was set to be one of the biggest films of 2020. Now the film must try to be a box office hit in a fragmented market during a global pandemic.

After multiple delays of its planned July premiere, the twisty Warner Bros. film finally opens in the United States on Thursday. Hollywood will be closely watching “Tenet’s” opening, using it as a gauge of the movie theater business’ viability going forward.
It may seem improbable that “Tenet,” or any film for that matter, can find an audience with coronavirus cases still rising in some areas and a second surge expected in the fall. But the film can still be the hit that both Warner Bros. and the theaters need right now, thanks to a lack of competition and a longer runway for success.

    Still, even the biggest fans of director Christopher Nolan may be asking if it’s really safe enough to go to the movies right now.
    That uncertainty puts a lot of pressure on “Tenet” — and it’s changed the metrics of success for Hollywood at large.

    “We have to recalibrate our thinking as to what even constitutes a blockbuster in today’s pandemically challenged marketplace,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore (SCOR), told CNN Business. “The pandemic has changed everything, including expectations.”

    How “Tenet” can be a hit

    Warner Bros.’ “Tenet,” a time-travel spy thriller, may not need to make a massive initial splash. (Warner Bros., like CNN, is owned by WarnerMedia.) Some of Hollywood’s biggest hits, including “E.T.” and “Titanic,” didn’t have huge opening weekends, instead finding an audience over multiple months.
    This may be a way forward for “Tenet.” With the pandemic delaying hits like “F9” and “Top Gun: Maverick” into next year, and titles like “Mulan” heading to Disney+, theaters now have many empty screens to fill. This surplus will allow movies like “Tenet” to play longer than the usual blockbuster, which could benefit its bottom line.
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    “Films will have ‘legs’ again,” Dergarabedian said. “Lower capacity and fewer open theaters means that the film will have to be judged by its box-office at the end of what will be a marathon theatrical run, not the traditional metric of an opening weekend sprint to box office glory.”
    Plus, Dergarabedian added, theaters in major markets like New York City are still closed. So if these markets eventually reopen, “Tenet” could get multiple box office bumps as the year goes on. (Track how box-office sales have been hit on our recovery dashboard.)
    “A longer theatrical window ensures that cities left out of the mix at first could still have a bite of a first-run movie down the road when those theaters are allowed to open,” he said.
    And if the majority of stateside theaters stay closed, “Tenet” can arguably still become a hit even without the United States. It’s already off to a solid start overseas, making roughly $54 million in multiple international markets last weekend.
    “Will it be a blockbuster? I don’t know. Profitable? Probably,” Doug Stone, president of Box Office Analyst, told CNN Business. “For Warner Bros. and Christopher Nolan, I think they’d be happy with profitable, all things considered.”

    Will — and should — anyone go to see “Tenet” right now?

    Things have certainly changed for Hollywood. The coronavirus outbreak closed US theaters for five months, and in that time consumers grew accustomed to watching movies at home via streaming services like Netflix (NFLX).
    Now, the biggest problem is convincing moviegoers that theaters are safe.
    Dr. Rochelle Walensky, a CNN medical analyst, said going to the movies is not something she “would go out and recommend,” but added that “it all depends on how it’s done.”
    Theater chains like AMC have created safety guidelines, such as requiring all guests to wear masks and capping theater capacity. It’s unclear, however, if those measures are enough to entice people to buy a ticket as coronavirus is still prevalent in the US.
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    What gives Walensky “real pause,” she said, is theater concessions.
    “We can’t eat popcorn and be masked. They’re just simply mutually exclusive,” Walenksy said. “All of those things that are natural, pleasurable behaviors when you’re trying to enjoy yourself in a movie theater are really not a good idea.”

      So how do you convince moviegoers, who have gotten used to staying home, that going to the movies is safe when medical experts don’t necessarily recommend it? The answer to that question, above everything else, will hold the key to if “Tenet” or any upcoming film can be a blockbuster right now.
      “The most important factor in all of this is moviegoers’ health and safety,” Dergarabedian said. “As long as strictly enforced protocols are visible and in place, consumer confidence will hopefully build over time. This goes not just for ‘Tenet,’ but for every movie looking for big-screen success.”
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