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Cinemas hope slate of blockbusters draws the curtain on Covid slump

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Struggling cinema owners are pinning hopes for recovery from an “existential” crisis on a slate of Covid-delayed blockbusters such as No Time to Die, the latest James Bond film, even as the Delta variant keeps many movie fans glued to their streaming services.

MGM and Universal’s announcement on Friday that they will push ahead with the premiere of No Time to Die in London on September 28 was a sliver of good news for global cinema companies as they congregate in Las Vegas for their annual conference this week.

The $250m Bond film has been delayed three times since its original 2020 release date. But it is unclear whether other titles, including Sony’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife or Paramount’s Top Gun: Maverick will be released this autumn as planned or pushed back.

Whenever they are released, few believe that these titles will be able to come close to achieving the global box office hauls they would have brought pre-pandemic.

CinemaCon, the movie theatre industry’s biggest conference, is typically a love-in between the studios and the cinema chains. But this year’s event comes as the cinema owners face unprecedented strain due to Covid, and amid tension between film distributors and the studios over streaming.

“The last 18 months have been the biggest existential challenge to moviegoing ever,” said John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, the conference’s hosts. But he said he was confident the industry can return to the record-breaking levels of 2019, when ticket sales reached $43bn, and that viewers will return to cinemas to see some “great movies this fall and winter”.

Others are not so sure, however, saying that the 2019 box office may have been the high-water mark amid an epic shift in movie business. Even a healthy box office this autumn — by no means a sure thing — may not ease the sense of crisis for an industry whose business model is being upended by streaming.

Cinema owners were alarmed this summer by Hollywood studios’ “simultaneous release” of films in theatres and on streaming services during the pandemic, and many believe they represent an inevitable change to the economics of their business.

Disney and Warner shocked theatre owners and A-list actors by releasing summer popcorn movies Black Widow and Godzilla vs Kong on their streaming services at the same time as the theatrical release, eating into the potential box office take.

This is a worry for the big cinema chains, led in the US by AMC and Cinemark.

“The theatres are really fighting for their lives,” said Jeff Bock, senior media analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “You wonder if people are ever going to go back to [watching films] the way they did.”

The aggressive streaming moves by Disney and Warner Bros set off a furious reaction, with the theatre owners’ lobby group blasting the decision and actress Scarlett Johansson filing a lawsuit against Disney for breach of contract. Disney has said the suit is “without merit”.

But Wall Street has cheered the studios’ belated move to follow Netflix into streaming, with investors bidding up shares on strong subscription numbers for Warner’s HBO Max and Disney’s Disney + streaming services.

“The incentives for studios are not about profitability or how to get the best return on a movie, but about driving subscriptions,” Fithian said.

Valuing subscription numbers over profits is not sustainable, he said, making a shakeout among streaming services inevitable. Cinemas may not enjoy the long “windows of exclusivity” they had before the pandemic, “but they also won’t be the same as during the pandemic”.

For now, the cinema owners are hoping that rising vaccination rates will give movie fans confidence to return to the multiplex. At the start of the US summer film season, surveys showed 80 per cent of movie-goers were confident about returning to the cinema. With the spread of the Delta variant, however, those numbers have dropped to 67 per cent more recently.

“There’s not enough consumer confidence yet,” Fithian said. “But the big screen is clearly coming back.”

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