The Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City, UT
As of mid-August, 87 giant-screen theaters in 15 countries have reopened following extended closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic. This represents about 41% of the worldwide inventory of 213 non-multiplex GS screens. Some 30 other institutions have opened their facilities but not yet reopened their GS theaters. The status of 19 other organizations with GS screens, mostly in Asia, could not be determined from their Web sites or other sources as this issue went to press in the last week of August.
This leaves 78 GS theaters (38%) — 66 institutional and 12 standalone — still closed, nearly nine months after closures began in China in January.
The U.S. leads in the number of GS theater reopenings, with 41, even as the numbers of confirmed new cases and deaths grow at higher rates than in most other developed countries.
All reopened theaters and their host institutions have implemented safety procedures that include limits on building and theater admissions, social distancing guidelines, face masks for staff and visitors (although they are not required by all venues), enhanced cleaning protocols, changes to traffic flow, and other measures.
On the production side, most GS films have halted any active shooting that had been under way or planned, although a handful of projects have managed to do limited shooting in remote locations, while exercising increased precautions. Projects that had completed principal photography have found new ways to do post-production work remotely, with the added benefit of less time pressure, since most 2020 release dates have been thrown out the window.
Meanwhile, multiplex theaters have also begun reopening, with 663 out of 1,414 worldwide locations with IMAX theaters (47%) open as of mid-August, the majority of which (at least 386) are in China. Canada, Japan, Russia, and the U.K. have opened about 35 IMAX screens each, with France, South Korea, and the U.S. opening about 15 each. (Note that our data do not include all multiplex theaters in a given country, only those that have IMAX theaters.)
And Hollywood studios are preparing to resume new releases, with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet as the trailblazer. Originally expected to open in July, Tenet will be released in most of the world on Aug. 26 or 27, in the U.S. and Russia on Sept. 3, and in China a day after that, Sept. 4. Other major blockbusters, such as Wonder Woman 1984, the next James Bond episode, No Time to Die, and Top Gun: Maverick, have also been pushed back from their original dates.
Institutional theaters’ experience
By and large, most theaters that have reopened are following the procedures mentioned above to maximize the health and safety of their staffs and visitors. Other steps include reducing the number of shows per day to allow time for cleaning seats, simplifying or suspending concession sales, and eliminating 3D shows, or switching to single-use glasses, to reduce concerns about cleaning and handling 3D glasses.
There are variations in the percentage of seats being sold (in some cases as mandated by local authorities) but most cluster around 25%. So far, few theaters are selling even these low numbers, and many managers, like Darren Durocher at Telus World of Science Edmonton, tell LF Examiner they are happy to have achieved as much as 74% of the reduced capacity. However, he adds, this is “only about 20% of our 2019 July attendance.”
At the Clark Planetarium, a 70-foot (21-meter) IMAX Dome in Salt Lake City, UT, where capacity has been reduced from 288 to 45, Richard Cox says his weekend shows are selling out, although “weekday shows are 33% occupancy at best.”
Most theaters are blocking off every other row of seats, and some further enforce social distancing by having ushers seat each party.
Steve Fentress, director of the Strasenburgh Planetarium at the Rochester Museum and Science Center, a 65-foot (20-meter) fulldome in New York, tells LFX that “as part of our recent renovation, we removed all permanent seats, using movable chairs on an open flat floor. That made it possible to arrange seats six feet apart and establish a seating capacity of 26,” one-fifth of the previous capacity of 130. “After the first two or three weeks, we have been selling out our small capacity for most performances.”
Furloughs and layoffs
With nearly no income for most of the year, museums have had to look at all options for new revenues on the one hand, and reducing expenditures on the other. Zoos, aquariums, and other organizations with living collections cannot simply turn off the lights and lock their doors. Most GS institutions (including the Giant Screen Cinema Association) have been able to take advantage of various emergency government programs to assist with salaries and other expenses.
Virtually all have increased fundraising appeals via their Web sites and other social media. A notable success story is the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL, home to the popular Space Camp, as well as a 67-foot (20.4-meter) Evans & Sutherland fulldome, and a 52-foot (16-meter) digital 3D theater. The center told fans in late July that it might have to close if it couldn’t raise $1.5 million. Its GoFundMe campaign raised that amount in a week, thanks in large part to a $500,000 donation from Boeing and $250,000 from SAIC. But in addition to those gifts, over 8,000 people and corporations from all 50 states and 36 countries made donations that exceeded the goal by more than $85,000.
According to survey of 760 museums by the American Alliance of Museums released in June, 58% said they had not furloughed or laid off any staff, 26% had furloughed part-time workers, 16% had laid off part-timers, 15% had furloughed full-time staff, and 11% had laid off full-time employees.
Among the dozen or so theaters that responded to LFX, most had laid off, furloughed, or reduced the salaries of some portion of their staffs. However, those that have reopened say they have brought back the affected employees.
We know of at least half a dozen GS theater managers who have been permanently laid off, with another two or three who opted for early retirement. On the other hand, one manager who had planned to retire in the fall has agreed to stay on for a few extra months to help with reopening plans.
The fate of institutions
Apart from the effects on individual museum employees, the pandemic has had a serious impact on many institutions. According to the AAM survey, roughly one-third expect to lose up to 20% of their income in 2020, another third could lose up to 40%, and more than one-fifth believe they could lose as much as 60%. Eleven percent say they might lose between 60% and 100% of their income this year. As a result, 16% of respondents said there is a “significant risk of…closing permanently in the next 16 months,” and another 17% said they weren’t sure that their organizations would survive.
However, the giant-screen world may not be quite as hard hit as these numbers would suggest. Museums with GS theaters are typically among the largest and most financially viable institutions, whereas the majority of AAM members are art or history museums that are, on average, much smaller. The kinds of facility that typically host GS theaters — science centers, zoos, and aquariums — make up less than 10% of AAM’s membership. So, grim as they are, the averages reported in the survey are not necessarily representative of GS institutions.
Nevertheless, many freelance museum professionals and consultants could be hit hard. According to a survey by the International Council of Museums, 56.4 % of freelancers said they would have to suspend their own salaries this year, 39.4% said they were downsizing their companies, and 55.4% said the future of their firm is at risk.
The biggest player in the GS world, Imax Corporation, has reported a loss of $83.7 million in the first half of 2020, but its substantial cash reserves are expected to permit it to weather the downturn.
As noted in our report on the GS Films of 2020 in the Jan.-Feb. issue, 16 titles were expected to open this year, four of which premiered before the large-scale theater closures began in March.
- Dinosaurs of Antarctica (2/14)………………….. Giant Screen Films
- Into America’s Wild (2/14)……………. MacGillivray Freeman Films
- Sea Lions: Life by a Whisker (2/15)……………….. Definition Films
- Ancient Caves (3/7)…………………………. Oceanic Research Group
At this writing, only five others have been confirmed by their producers as opening in 2020.
- Astronaut: Ocean to Orbit (fall)……… Oceanic Research Group
- Asteroid Hunters (10/8)…………………………….. Imax Corporation
- Train Time (Nov.)…………………………… Stephen Low Company
- Antarctica (late 2020)……… BBC Studios Natural History Unit
- The Search for Snow (late 2020)………………….. Ouragan Films
Others have been pushed into 2021 or put on hold until their producers and distributors can gain a clearer picture of the landscape.
The producers of the four titles that opened in the first quarter have obviously not achieved the bookings or revenues they expected, and some have had to adjust their future release schedules to avoid competing with themselves. For instance, director Jonathan Bird’s Ancient Caves ran for only a handful of days in two theaters in mid-March. He tells LFX that although he has nearly completed Secrets of the Sea with Howard and Michele Hall, they and distributor MacGillivray Freeman Films will probably hold it until 2022 to give Ancient Cavestime to find its audience. In the meantime, Bird has almost finished a 20-minute GS short, Astronaut: Ocean to Orbit, which he hopes to open this fall, if he can get a few more shots. A fine cut of that film will be shown at the GSCA’s virtual conference in September.
Film production during the pandemic is complicated by travel restrictions, local health and safety regulations, and the need to protect crew and talent while shooting. Although the rules may be easier for the relatively small crews of GS films to observe than for producers of feature films, they can increase costs significantly, perhaps as much as 20%.
That estimate comes from Cosmic Picture’s Daniel Ferguson, who had been planning to begin shooting this year for New England and the Sea of Stories, the new signature film for the Museum of Science Boston. After speaking with the producers of commercials, TV series, and larger-budget documentaries, he learned that
“…working days for union shows are down from 10 hours to 8.5 (due to new arrival, departure, sanitizing and meal protocols). Productions have to provide for COVID coordinators and nurses on set, and test anyone on cast insurance, and certainly any key talent, regularly. In the case of one production I know of, there was a positive test, which ended up shutting down the show for several days and resulting in daily tests for every crew member and additional precautions, to the tune of tens of thousands.”
Although some of these factors wouldn’t apply to most GS shoots, he mentioned another potentially significant concern: “There is currently no underwriter who is willing to insure any production for COVID-19 incidents.” He concludes, “Frankly, it’s a mess for larger-scale docs with continuous block shooting.” Because the New England film will include crowds and large crews, he and his team have decided to delay filming until 2021.
Despite the challenges, a few GS producers have actually been able to get some shooting done during the pandemic. Alexandre Milazzo of nWave Pictures tells us that one of their cameramen, filming in the French Alps for The Search for Snow, was stopped by police. But because he was on his own, the allowed him to continue, their greatest concern being that he might require a helicopter rescue if he was injured. (He wasn’t, and got some additional footage.)
Tom Winston says that although Grizzly Creek Films’ planned spring shoot in Yellowstone National Park for Yellowstone: Life in Extremes was canceled when the park was closed, his team was able to capture some unprecedented aerials showing the park completely devoid of humans. He notes, “We documented a truly historical moment in time over the world’s first national park.”
Although location shooting has mostly ceased, for the most part, post-production has not been affected nearly as much. Jonathan Bird has been working on the 3D conversion of Ancient Cavesduring the shut-down, and reports that he is thrilled with the results. “As you know, we shot the film with domes specifically in mind. But the 3D version is so good, that at this point I’m not sure which version is better! Our 3D supervisor Rick Gordon and the gang at Legend 3D Inc. knocked it out of the park.”
Other producers have had to develop new workflows and procedures to get their post work done in the post-COVID world. For one case study, see the story by Myles Connolly in the print edition.
A few distributors have also launched programs to reach out directly to viewers. In addition to the GS films available for streaming, as mentioned in our previous reports, BIG & Digital is offering virtual field trips, which combine GS documentaries from the firm’s library with hands-on activities that students can do at school or at home. Principal Tina Ratterman expanded the Cinema Learning Challenge, developed in 2017 with Clark County, NV, to an online program available to schools and families, starting in August.
Sinking Ship Entertainment, producer and distributor of Dino Dana: The Movie, has created new online content “to keep audiences engaged during these challenging times,” until the film returns to theaters next year. The new material includes a new Dino Dana podcast and an “Ask a Paleontologist” video series.
Hollywood and multiplexes
Five Hollywood features premiered in IMAX theaters in January and February, and three more received a handful of screenings in March before theaters closed: Disney/Pixar’s Onward (3/6), I Still Believe (3/13) from Lionsgate, and Sony’s Bloodshot (3/13). Twelve more DMR titles had been scheduled for the remainder of 2020, but only eight still appear on Imax’s list of coming attractions. Mulan will be released directly to streaming, and Black Widow, The King’s Man, and Dune also may not get IMAX runs. Beastie Boys Story is listed at Imax.com, but without a release date.
The first post-COVID film to run in U.S. IMAX theaters will be 20th Century and Marvel’s The New Mutants, which will test the waters in the week before Tenet opens on Sept. 3. The rest of the IMAX slate has been shifted and shuffled from its original order. Tenet was delayed from its original July 17 date; following it will be Wonder Woman 1984 on Oct. 2, moved from June 5; No Time to Die, first set for April 10, will now open on Nov. 25; and Top Gun: Maverick has moved from June 26 to Dec. 23. F9 Fast and Furious, originally expected on May 22, has been pushed back to April 2, 2021, the date that F&F episode 10 was to have opened.
In the U.S., each state has different rules and restrictions on when and how multiplexes can reopen. At press time, six states — California, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and North Carolina — had not announced opening dates, and several others were only allowing those in certain counties to open. In the majority of states that are permitting theaters to open, capacities are limited to between 25% and 66%, or to fixed totals such as 50 people. A few states have no set limits, but only require six-foot separation between patrons.
Similarly, guidelines regarding masks vary from state to state, with most not requiring them for theater guests who are socially distanced inside an auditorium. However, Cinemark requires masks be worn except while eating or drinking, but it’s not clear how rigorously that rule will be enforced.
The way forward
As this issue was being prepared, at least two colleagues with GS projects in the works approached LF Examiner to ask for advice on what the future of the business looked like. We had to admit that with all the uncertainty surrounding virtually every aspect of life these days, we wouldn’t dare to offer predictions of any kind. We have been able to gather the facts presented in this article and our previous reports, but how soon theaters will open, when audiences will feel comfortable returning to them, when capacity restrictions will be lifted, when the world will be back to normal, and myriads more, are questions we certainly can’t answer and don’t believe anyone can.
There will be more pain, struggle, and uncertainty for most of the GS industry — as there will be for most of the world — for months and possibly even years to come. The GS business had been facing serious challenges before COVID-19 appeared. Our ranks as individuals have shrunk because of layoffs and retirements; it is possible that some of our institutional members could shut their doors, or not reopen their theaters, although we hasten to add that we know of no such imminent threats. But the number of GS theaters has been steadily shrinking for years, and that trend is unlikely to change in the post-COVID world.
However, the giant-screen experience is still compelling and unique, and for fifty years the people of the GS world have shown themselves to be creative, determined, and resilient. The various responses to the pandemic from museums, theaters, producers, and distributors documented in ourpast several issues have clearly demonstrated those strengths. And the GSCA has tackled the challenge and planned a virtual conference with sessions designed to help members weather the pandemic and thrive.
The fate of the GS business is in our hands.