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Movies

As coronavirus anxieties skyrocket, will audiences avoid movie theaters?

la-et-mn-bloodshot-movie
Eiza Gonzalez and Vin Diesel in “Bloodshot.”
(Graham Bartholomew / Sony Pictures)

Things change fast in the time of coronavirus. But as public spaces closed down this week across the country over fears of the viral pandemic, moviegoers were still buying tickets to see the latest new releases, albeit in fewer numbers than expected.

Going into the Friday the 13th weekend, audiences will keep last week’s box office winnerOnward” at No. 1 as three new wide-release challengers enter a precarious frame.

The well-reviewed animated adventure will handily win the top slot in its second week, according to early industry projections following Friday matinees. Still, the Disney and Pixar title is estimated to see a 55% dropoff, and is expected to take in $17.5 million this weekend compared with its $39.1-million opening.

An unpredictable weekend faces the first releases to open stateside following the sharp escalation of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. this week.

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In the last several days, many studios took decisive measures to move or postpone their highest-profile spring blockbusters as coronavirus fears mounted, including MGM’s James Bond film “No Time to Die,” Paramount’s “A Quiet Place Part II,” Universal’s “F9” and Disney’s “Mulan.”

Tom Hanks revealed this week that he and Rita Wilson tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the reality home to Hollywood. Networks and studios began shutting down productions and film and TV sets. Friday afternoon, President Trump declared a national emergency over the outbreak.

Some films, however, are sticking to their release plans. And it was too late in the game to change strategies for this weekend’s openers. The marketplace does seem to be at least somewhat affected as debates over when to self-quarantine continue.

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KJ Apa in “I Still Believe”
KJ Apa in “I Still Believe.”
(Michael Kubeisy/Lionsgate)

Performing within range of recent box office expectations, faith-based Christian music biopic “I Still Believe,” from Lionsgate and Kingdom Story Company, will open at No. 2 in wide release after strong Wednesday and Thursday previews, heading for a $12-million weekend opening.

Days after Universal moved its “Fast and Furious” sequel “F9" from May to next year, the franchise’s star Vin Diesel muscled into the March box office in Sony’s PG-13 sci-fi pic “Bloodshot.” The film is expected to land between $8 million and $9 million on the weekend.

Insiders note that the movie business is one of several industries facing an unprecedented climate that is rapidly changing and difficult to predict.

Perhaps no other film this week has dealt in the unpredictable like Universal’s R-rated action-satire “The Hunt.” Initially slated to open last November, the politically charged Blumhouse title was pulled from release a month before it was set to hit theaters amid mass shooting tragedies and heated media outcry.

Betty Gilpin stars in “The Hunt”
Betty Gilpin stars in “The Hunt,” which was originally set for release last fall.
(Patti Perret / Universal Pictures)

Universal reset it for a March 13 release, only to finally open “The Hunt” in theaters at a time when states of emergency are being declared across the nation and many people are wary of entering public spaces including their local cineplex.

Opening on 3,000-plus screens in North America, “The Hunt” is projected to come in fourth this weekend with an estimated $6.3 million, shy of the $8-million target it was eyeing earlier this week.

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In the last few weeks, projections for all three new releases had steadily fallen as coronavirus anxiety gripped the country. “The Hunt,” “Bloodshot” and “I Still Believe” were all previously projected to perform more strongly at the box office, but also received negative reviews from critics. (All three are rated “rotten” on the website Rotten Tomatoes, with “The Hunt” faring best at a 53% positive rating.)

Still, day-to-day changes in the public health crisis could affect audience willingness to go to the movies.

On Friday, Regal and AMC chains announced reduced seating capacities and new social distancing measures in theaters.

The same afternoon, specialty exhibitor American Cinematheque announced that its two locations, the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and the Aero in Santa Monica, would suspend screenings and events until further notice.

Aero Theatre in Santa Monica
The Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, part of the American Cinematheque with Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre, closed Friday until further notice due to coronavirus.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

In New York City, Alamo Drafthouse theaters in Brooklyn and Yonkers were to be closed as of Friday. Other Alamo locations, however, including its downtown Los Angeles outpost, remain open. The company announced it would be increasing health and safety measures in their theaters, offer paid sick leave for employees who are tested for coronavirus and introduce social distancing measures in some locations.

Across the U.S. schools, museums and public buildings have closed. Conferences, festivals and professional sports have been placed on hold, including the NBA after players tested positive for coronavirus.

If empty grocery store shelves are any indication, more and more people are planning to hunker down in voluntary isolation for weeks or more. As the public takes precautionary measures and avoids social events and gatherings, there will be podcasts and shows and movies to stream, video games to play, books to read, plants to tend to and viral TikTok videos to consume at home.

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In Italy and China, movie theaters are closed altogether. Will heightened health, safety and social distancing protocols be enough to convince domestic moviegoers to keep going to the movies?

Some industry watchers predict that the shutdown of the sports industry might actually drive the young adult male demographic to the movies for genre fare like “Bloodshot,” which fared solidly in Thursday previews with $1.2 million.

Parents working from home for the foreseeable future might be tempted to break out of the house to take their children to see “Trolls World Tour” on April 10, which is the next major studio wide release on the schedule as of this writing, depending on how the pandemic unfolds.

With major developments unfolding on a daily and sometimes hourly basis, industry professionals are watching to see if Saturday’s returns indicate an extreme shift in audience behavior given the events of the last few days.


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