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Can cinemas stay in business after the COVID pandemic?

Howard Lipin AMC Theaters at Westfield Mission Valley Mall in San Diego on March 14, 2020. (Howard Lipin/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

Howard Lipin AMC Theaters at Westfield Mission Valley Mall in San Diego on March 14, 2020. (Howard Lipin/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

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At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans were forced to give up some of their favorite comforts as mandatory home bans went into effect across the country. The film industry was hit particularly hard, as both large chains and small independent cinemas were forced to close their doors.

We’re not over the hill with the coronavirus as states continue to respond to the BA.5 omicron variant — yet it doesn’t feel like Americans are going back to full quarantine mode any time soon. And as Hollywood studios resume releasing big-budget films, theaters are scrambling to get back on track with pre-COVID earnings.

But despite the recent big-budget blockbusters hitting theaters (“Top Gun: Maverick,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” “The Batman”), five of the largest cinema chains in the US continue to lag behind still far behind figures 2019.

The biggest surge in box office attendance since March 2020 came in December 2021, when big releases like West Side Story, The Matrix: Resurrections, and Spider-Man: No Way Home took place. The latter was by far the biggest hit, grossing over $800 million at the domestic box office.

But even the chains’ best week, with more than 400,000 admissions, pales in comparison to the best week of 2019. During Christmas week of this year, US theaters saw attendances surge to more than 600,000 admissions. This spike came on the back of blockbusters like Little Women, Jumanji: The Next Level, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

So why is foot traffic still lagging so far behind pre-pandemic levels? According to The Hollywood Reporter, only 387 new movies hit theaters in 2021, up from 987 in 2019. Moviegoers who want the cinematic experience just don’t have as many choices as they did a few years ago. Streaming services have since expanded.

“To survive the post-pandemic era, film studios and theaters may need to collaborate with the streaming world that almost killed them,” writes Fortune’s Tristan Bove.

Let’s hope they do, because while the comfort of catching a movie from the comfort of your own home is nice, there really is nothing quite like seeing your next favorite movie on the big screen.

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Chris Dobstaff has been with McClatchy since 2014, when he started as an editor for The San Luis Obispo Tribune. He has worked as a social media coordinator and on McClatchy’s California growth team.

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