Movies Are Returning to Theaters. Will Audiences Follow?

HENDERSON, Nev. — The Regal Sunset Station multiplex in suburban Las Vegas reopened on Thursday night after sitting empty for five months in eerie pandemic-forced exile. One of the first people to take a center seat, popcorn and orange soda in hand, was Brian Truitt, who bought tickets to “The New Mutants,” a Marvel superhero movie, a week in advance.

“I figured it would be jammed, with pent-up demand to come to the movies again,” Mr. Truitt, 38, said as he sat back in his reclining seat and tugged at his face mask. He looked around the mostly empty auditorium, with capacity for 172, and shrugged in surprise. “I guess not.”

For the first time since March, big-budget movies are being released again in theaters. “The New Mutants” cost at least $70 million to make and market. Coming next week is Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” a hotly anticipated $200 million thriller. But the willingness of Americans to return to theaters — to sit inside a closed room with strangers for hours, regardless of the safety protocols — remains anything but certain. For Hollywood, which has come to rely on superheroes and star directors like Mr. Nolan as relatively sure bets, releasing these films is like stepping off a ledge without knowing where the ground lies.

If Thursday night at Regal Sunset Station was any indication, the drop could be considerable. By the time the lights dimmed for the 7 p.m. show and trailers started to play, the sound system jouncing everyone’s insides, only 28 people had turned up, including myself.

Maybe it was the movie. “The New Mutants,” a long-delayed “X-Men” thriller, has been beleaguered by bad buzz and was lightly marketed by Walt Disney Studios. It epitomizes what many people think is wrong with Hollywood: endless overreliance on superheroes (“New Mutants” is the 13th installment in the 20-year-old “X-Men” franchise); corporate consolidation (the film was delayed because of Disney’s takeover of 20th Century Fox); filmmaking by committee (at least eight writers worked on the project).

Theater executives have pointed to “Tenet” as the film that will send people cascading back into seats and restore a sense of normalcy to an industry that was essentially brought to a standstill by the pandemic. The economics for “Tenet” and other megamovies work only if lots of people leave their houses and buy tickets to see them in theaters. Put another way, if people don’t return to the theaters, it may change what is available to watch — studios may have to start making less expensive films.

Maybe it was the still-threatening coronavirus. Studio research has indicated that the majority of Americans are not ready to immediately return to theaters, even with theater companies promoting a wide array of safety procedures: capacity limited to 50 percent, enhanced air filtration, aggressive cleaning, masks required except when eating or drinking. Nevada reported 632 new coronavirus infections on Friday, reversing a week of declines.

Or maybe moviegoing has changed forever.

“It felt odd,” Shawn Mitchell, 25, said about returning to the movies as he left Regal Sunset Station on Thursday. “It was harder to just zone out during the movie. Now you’re more aware of what’s happening around you in the theater.”

Was that the sound of someone shaking kernels in the bottom of a popcorn bucket — or a dry cough? (Whew, popcorn.) Were any workers monitoring the theater as the movie played and reminding patrons that they had to wear masks if they weren’t eating or drinking? (Not that I ever saw.) Is that woman sitting nearby seriously going to watch the entire film with her mask dangling from one ear? (Yup.)

By the end of the 98-minute movie, many of the attendees were mask free, their popcorn long since munched. At one point, my mind wandered away from the mutants trying to escape a marauding computer-generated bear. I couldn’t stop thinking about a trailer for a coming disaster movie that had played before the film in which a voice had instructed: “Seek shelter immediately! Seek shelter immediately!” I comforted myself by tightening my own mask and using some Clorox wipes to make a little pillow for my head on the reclining seat.

But no one else seemed concerned. “I’m young and healthy, so I’m not really worried about it,” said a mask-free Malary Marshall, 24, before the movie started.

Lois Gumataotao, 69, who came to see “New Mutants” at Regal Sunset Station with her husband and grandson, said she was satisfied with the safety protocols, noting in particular that the theater was leaving one seat unfilled between groups to create distance. The Gumataotaos also kept their masks on.

“We felt safe,” Ms. Gumataotao said. She added, “There was not a big crowd, but if there was we would have felt differently.”

She was not thrilled about “The New Mutants” as the main offering, however. “It was the only thing they had,” she said. (Although the 13-screen multiplex was mostly showing “The New Mutants,” it had one other new film on offer on Thursday night: “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” a modestly budgeted comedic drama based on the Charles Dickens classic. Another new film, “Unhinged,” a road-rage thriller starring Russell Crowe, joined the lineup on Friday.)

Everyone in attendance did agree on one thing. Having just reopened, the Regal outpost was spotless.

“I have also never seen a theater as clean as this one is right now,” Mr. Mitchell said. “Normally at a lot of theaters there is popcorn and all sorts of yuck on the floor. I really hope they keep it this way.”

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