The holiday lineup at movie theaters is one of the best in years — and local movie theater owners hope it gives them a needed boost in revenue.
However, they also are worried higher COVID-19 rates and hospitalizations will stop the momentum built this fall for people to get out to see a show.
"This has probably been the strongest fall that we could have asked for and winter is looking really, really strong," said Nathan Block, who owns the Woodbury 10 Theatre and 15-screen St. Michael Cinema.
The holiday lineup includes "Spider-Man: No Way Home," "The Matrix Resurrections" and "Ghostbusters: Afterlife," along with animated films "Sing 2" and "Encanto" and Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story" — all of which should drive people to theaters.
But Block said resurfaced COVID-19 fears could put theaters "back to square one" just when they were starting to recover and during one of their most profitable times of the year.
It's an unfortunate situation for theaters. Under normal circumstances, this would have been a "slam, bang holiday season" Block said. "I've got a lot of concerns about that."
Marcus Theatres, a subsidiary of Milwaukee-based Marcus Corp., has 10 cinemas in Minnesota, including theaters in Rochester, Rosemount, Oakdale, Elk River and Hastings. The company's theater division is the fourth largest in the country, with more than 1,000 screens in 17 states.
Blockbusters have historically accounted for a significant portion of the company's total admission revenues. For its fiscal 2019, the company's top 15 performing films accounted for 48% of its total admission revenue, according to its 2020 annual report.
But in 2020, when studios delayed or postponed box office releases and theaters were ordered to close for weeks or operate at low capacities to slow the spread of COVID-19, Marcus' fiscal year revenue dived to $132.6 million, down $557 million from the previous year.
Other theaters had far worse outcomes. Since the pandemic began, the Uptown Theatre, the Edina Cinema and Mann's Hopkins Cinema 6 all have closed.
The historic one-screen Riverview Theater in Minneapolis, built in 1948, has survived. Beyond new releases, it is counting on its traditional special events to help it stay open. The Christmas at the Riverview event, with classic holiday films like "It's a Wonderful Life," "White Christmas" and "Elf," is back this year from Dec. 10 to 15 after being canceled in 2020.
Northwoods Entertainment has seen box office sales up as much as 80% over the past three months at its 15 U.S. theaters, including nine in Minnesota, mostly under the Emagine brand, said managing partner Jon Goldstein. Sales are still down 20% compared with the same period in 2019.
"It's going to take a while to get back to 100 percent," said Goldstein of the chain, which is based in Michigan but run out of Minneapolis. "But where we're at right now is very workable."
Goldstein also is optimistic about the lineup of theater releases over the next few months.
"I think people are itching to get out of their house," he said. "They are looking for entertainment options and going to the movies is still the cheapest thing you can do outside of your house."
The last three months have played out much better than any month during the pandemic thanks to movies like "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," "Dune" and "Venom: Let There Be Carnage," said Marcus Theatres CEO Rolando Rodriguez.
For the company's third quarter ending Sept. 30, Marcus Theatres generated $79 million in revenue, up from $7.3 million in the year-ago period.
That reflects an overall revival in the U.S. industry. Through Tuesday, gross domestic box office sales this year rose more than 67% to $3.37 billion, according to the website Box Office Mojo, which is operated by Internet Movie Database, or IMDb, a subsidiary of Amazon.
Overall, the U.S. and Canadian box office market in 2020 was $2.2 billion, an 80% drop compared with 2019, according to the Motion Picture Association. A total of 240 million tickets were sold, an 81% drop.
Momentum will hopefully continue into 2022 with action releases such as "The Batman" and "Morbius," Rodriguez said.
A potential disrupter of the industry's momentum, however, is the role COVID plays in the psyche of consumers, Rodriguez said.
"Our hope continues to be that we see this thing being behind us, and number two, we continue to encourage not just our associates, but everyone to please get vaccinated," he said.
The newer releases are action films that cater to younger audiences, which is helping the industry's revival, Goldstein said. Dramas that typically draw older crowds have not performed like they used to, he said.
Older crowds also fall into the category of those at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, which can make them "more careful of what they do outside the house," Goldstein said.
Ensuring that all guests feel safe in theaters is paramount for theaters trying to maintain traffic over the next several months, owners said.
For Northwoods' Minnesota theaters, all seats were converted to recliners, eliminating 60% of capacity, Goldstein said. The renovation gives movie goers the least crowded experience possible.
In addition to COVID-19 fears, theaters over the holiday season will continue battling steaming services. The U.S. home entertainment and mobile entertainment market grew to $30 billion, a 21% increase, in 2020, according to the Motion Picture Association.
"It's worrisome. This launched more competition for the movie theater business that we really didn't need," said Block, the owner of the St. Michael and Woodbury theaters.
Movie theaters are still the best option for studios and content creators to recoup their investments, Goldstein said. Some monthly streaming subscriptions can cost less than or equal to a single movie theater ticket, and though consumers can favor that bargain, a theater-first strategy for studios gives them the highest per-user revenue.
Still, the lineup over the next few months has Block hopeful that movie-goers will get off the couch to support a reviving industry.
"It would be a Christmas miracle, because we need every dollar we can get right now," he said.