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Movie Theaters Face Challenges After A Year Of Massive Losses


Eighty percent, that's the number movie theaters have lost in ticket sales since the beginning of the pandemic. Now summer blockbusters are back. But will the audience return? Sally Herships and Stacey Vanek Smith from The Indicator tell us about the challenges the movie theater industry is facing.


SALLY HERSHIPS: One of the big, highly anticipated movies this summer is "Black Widow." It was supposed to come out last spring, but, you know, the pandemic. About 80 major releases like "Black Widow" were held back. But at least the movie is here now. And Scarlett Johansson plays a superhero in the Marvel Universe.


SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Black Widow) Before I was an Avenger, I made mistakes and a lot of enemies.

STACEY VANEK SMITH: This movie has it all. You've got KGB, Russia, helicopters, giant explosions and, of course, Scarlett Johansson in, like, a patent leather cat suit. What more could a person want, Sally?

HERSHIPS: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: In a normal year, a successful Marvel film can take in hundreds of millions of dollars, close to a billion, even, at the box office. But even in a normal year, movie theaters need more than just one blockbuster to succeed. Patrick Corcoran is vice president of the National Association of Theater Owners.

PATRICK CORCORAN: The last thing we ever want to do is say to an audience, I'm sorry, we don't have what you want here.

HERSHIPS: That's one of the challenges theater owners face. They have to cater to all these different groups. And a lot of these groups break down by age and the amount of free time they have. And it begins with teenagers going to the movies.

VANEK SMITH: Then you get into your 20s. You still want a social life. But maybe you're also going to school. You've got bills, so you go to the movies less. Then you get older, might have kids of your own. And your ticket-buying might drop off even more. And then when your kids are old enough, you might start going back to the movies again, this time maybe to see Disney films or children's movies.

HERSHIPS: So theaters have this big problem. They're constantly having to try to assess what different kinds of movies they think are going to lure in all of these different groups of theatergoers.

VANEK SMITH: The next specific challenge the theater industry faces is marketing.

CORCORAN: The marketing campaign is the biggest part of that. It's very expensive to market these movies.

VANEK SMITH: And the pandemic really messed that up because unlike other products, a film has to be marketed at the same time everywhere. I mean, it didn't matter if Colorado wasn't in lockdown and their theaters could be open. There were no movies for Colorado until most states and their theaters were all open as well. Production companies spend on ad space, on TV and social media, billboards, red carpet events, publicity.

HERSHIPS: And word of mouth. That is a big part of selling tickets. If a movie does well in the States, you might not have to spend as much, like, in Italy. Word spreads. So that's why marketing campaign for a film has to be done all at once.

VANEK SMITH: And as all these major releases planned for last year started getting held back by studios, that created another problem. Because if you're a studio, and you've just dropped all of these millions of dollars making, like, "Black Widow" and also "Spider-Man: No Way Home," you do not want to risk cannibalizing your own audience. And that has caused even more delays and confusions. David Hancock is a film industry analyst at Omdia.

DAVID HANCOCK: So if one moves, you tend to find there's a bit of a - sort of a juggling around. So we have to move that. But if we move that, we've got that one there. So we have to move that. It's a kind of complicated game of chess, really.

VANEK SMITH: But still, theaters will have to make it through this period. David says when you add in the losses from advertising and concessions, global theaters stand to lose about $50 billion over the next 2 1/2 years.

Stacey Vanek Smith.

HERSHIPS: Sally Herships, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOKHOV'S "SPRING EVENING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
Sally Herships