A little more than a month after movie theater chains restarted operations in the United States, some are starting to shut back down.
On Monday, Cineworld, the parent company of Regal Cinemas, the second largest theater chain in the country, announced that it would temporarily close its 663 theaters in the United States and Britain this week.
Late last week, MGM/Universal announced that it was delaying the release of the new James Bond film, “No Time to Die,” until next year, the latest in a slew of big-budget movies that have been moved out of 2020 by Hollywood studios. And Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” whose Labor Day weekend release was intended to herald the return of movie theaters, continues to struggle at the U.S. box office, at least in part because audiences are wary of theaters.
Cineworld’s decision to close again, affecting 40,000 employees in the United States and 5,000 more in Britain, raised questions about what other chains will do if Hollywood’s release schedule remains barren.
For instance, Warner Bros. is postponing releasing the remake of “Dune,” once scheduled for December, until Oct. 1, 2021, according to two people familiar with the studio’s plans who spoke on condition of anonymity because they had not been made public. Warner Bros. declined to comment.
“If the studios continue postponing all their releases, the movie theaters aren’t going to be there for those postponed releases,” John Fithian, chief executive of the National Association of Theatre Owners, said in an interview. “They have to consider whether they want the long-term viability of the theater platform to be available to them. And I think they do since about 80 percent of the movies that were scheduled during our closed period have been postponed for future theatrical release and not taken to the home.”
Mr. Fithian also pointed to the government-mandated closure of theaters in New York State, home to a crucial box office market because of its size and cultural influence, as a major reason that releases were being delayed and chains were suffering financially.
Cinemark, the third largest theater operator in the country, said Monday that it would not shut its theaters. (Of its 332 theaters, 264 are open.) But it did say it would consider reducing the number of days and hours they operate while it “awaits new studio content to encourage theatrical moviegoing.” The smaller theater chain Alamo Drafthouse, which is operating about half of its 41 theaters nationwide, said it intended to remain open.
The other major theater chains — including AMC, which is the largest — did not comment, but the current release schedule does not offer many reasons to remain open in the short term. Disney moved its superhero film “Black Widow” into 2021, along with other releases expected this year, including Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of “West Side Story.”
Still hopeful for 2020 is “Wonder Woman 1984,” though Warner Bros. has already delayed its release from October to Christmas Day. “Soul,” the latest from Disney’s Pixar animation studio, is scheduled for a Nov. 20 release.
This past weekend, 2,931 U.S. movie theaters were open, about 57 percent of the country’s total. They generated a mere $12 million in box office receipts. The box office totals from the same weekend a year ago reached $150 million, buoyed by the release of “Joker,” which alone earned $96.2 million.
Lobbying efforts to save the movie theater business have been fierce. The theater owners group led by Mr. Fithian sent a letter to Congress last week signed by some 92 directors and producers, including Mr. Spielberg, James Cameron and the “Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins. They called on lawmakers to help the industry with additional loan and grant programs that could help sustain the theaters until the pandemic subsides.
According to the trade group, if the industry does not receive any aid, 69 percent of the country’s small and midsize movie theater companies will be forced to file for bankruptcy or close permanently.
“If one of two things doesn’t happen, either Congress gives us substantial support quickly or New York gets open and the movies come back and the patrons come back, most of our companies are going to go under,” Mr. Fithian said.
Stephen Beck, a management consultant whose firm, cg42, measures consumer frustration, was not quite as fatalistic, citing “the human desire to get together in a shared experience.”
“What Regal announced is obviously terrible but I don’t think the business is gone by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “Its role might be different. Its scale and scope might be different but I don’t believe the theater business as an industry is gone.”
On Sept. 16, Cineworld’s chief executive, Mooky Greidinger, sent a letter to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York imploring him to treat movie theaters as he has other indoor venues. He pointed to the fact that there has been no evidence of transmission of the virus in cinemas, despite being open around the world for the past few months.
Mr. Cuomo has theaters categorized alongside concert venues and amusement parks — an infuriating distinction to the movie theaters, which claim that their individualized filtration systems, assigned seating and mask protocols make the moviegoing experience much safer than attending either a concert or a theme park.
“We’re moving heaven and earth trying to stop a second wave and people need to acknowledge that we’re still in a pandemic and start to act like it,” said Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Mr. Cuomo. “We understand some people are unhappy but you know what? Better unhappy than sick or worse.”
Cineworld’s announcement sent its stock spiraling. It fell as much as 60 percent when the stock market opened in London on Monday before ending the day down 25 percent.
In September, Cineworld reported a pretax loss of $1.6 billion for the first half of 2020. In total, the company operates 780 cinemas and is leaving about 100 locations in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania open. Last year, 90 percent of the company’s revenue was generated in the United States and Britain.
Stiles Bailey, who worked selling concessions and taking tickets at a Regal theater in Brunswick, Maine, got an email early Monday announcing that the company’s theaters were closing down.
“I just sat there dumbfounded, like ‘are you kidding me?” they said. “I just got that sinking feeling all over.”
Mx. Bailey, 32, has worked in movie theaters for eight years, affording a chance to share a love of film with theater patrons. Mx. Bailey was put on furlough in March, and then called back in August. Their hours were cut from 25 a week to about nine, and the shifts were quiet, with under 20 people coming in on some days.
Management has told employees they were being furloughed again, they said. Mx. Bailey has started applying for open positions at fast-food restaurants and retail stores, jobs they describe as “soul crushing.”
“I love stories in all forms but movies are really cool because it’s more of a shared experience than reading a book,” Mx. Bailey said. “I loved being able to have a customer come out and ask, ‘So what did you think of the movie?’”
Eshe Nelson and Anna Schaverien contributed reporting.