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The Movies Pitch The Audience: Come Back!

The State Theatre in Boyertown, Penn.
The State Theatre in Boyertown, Penn.

Action star and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made a pitch on Wednesday for audiences to return to movie theaters. It's been more than a year since COVID-19 first shuttered cinemas. Some will never reopen. The industry shed hundreds of thousands of jobs. New movie releases were postponed. Some premiered on streaming platforms or video-on-demand. Some opened in both theaters and living rooms on the same day.

Schwarzenegger was part of a group of Hollywood executives and filmmakers gathered at an AMC Theatre in Los Angeles on Wednesday for an event called "The Big Screen is Back." Each studio showed sizzle reels of trailers of their upcoming films that will open in theaters, showcasing the kinds of movies that people like to see on the big screen.

"We have seen over this last year, the pandemic year, that people watch movies on the little iPhone and the iPad," Schwarzenegger said. "They had to put their glasses on to see what's going on, and they're missing the special effects and visual effects and all the great stuff that you usually see on the big screen."

Before the studios showed off trailers for their upcoming slate of movies, Schwarzenegger led the audience in a chant: "We are back. We are back. We are back ..."

The National Association of Theatre Owners reports that more than 60 percent of movie theaters in the U.S. have reopened, with safety protocols in place. And, according to the National Research Group (NRG), seventy percent of moviegoers are now comfortable returning.

"Audiences are optimistic. They're hopeful. They really want to get back into the theaters as soon as there really are movies for them to see," NRG Executive Vice President Ethan Titelman said during the event. He expects audience comfort levels to increase to 80 percent by the end of June, before Marvel's Black Widow opens.

Titelman reports that while audiences want face mask policies in theaters to continue, "they are now more comfortable actually loosening the restrictions in terms of social distancing in the theaters. So we're kind of slowly getting back to normal."

He expects about 90 percent of moviegoers will say they're comfortable returning to theaters when vaccines are widely available, "which is the case for most adults and getting to be the case for children soon."

Movie theaters in China, Australia, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Spain have been open for some time, and a few major European markets have started to reopen. China is the model Titelman expects the rest of the world to eventually replicate; more than 90 percent of Chinese audiences returned to theaters last fall, setting global records at the box office.

In the U.S., he says the audience's return to theaters was stronger than expected for the Godzilla vs. Kong, Mortal Kombat and Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba.

Market research firm NRG interviewed a million moviegoers in 13 countries. They cited advantages to watching movies in the theater rather than at home, including the shared social experience, being free from distractions and the quality.

"Audiences believe that seeing movies in the theater is the best way to watch a movie," Titelman told the audience gathered in the theater. "Going to the movies makes for a much more memorable event, and it's something that audiences are really looking forward to. They're planning their week around it." He added, "We also missed that social connection that moviegoing provides not only with your friends and family you go to the movies with, but also that larger connection to the audience. Going to see movies in the theater also forces us hopefully to turn off our phones and fully immerse ourselves in the storytelling."

"Movie magic" and "popcorn" were two more reasons studios repeatedly mentioned in their presentations. The event was an unusual alliance of rivals; executives from Warner Brothers, Universal, MGM, United Artists, Searchlight, Focus Features, SONY, NEON, Lionsgate, Paramount, Walt Disney Studios all had the same goal: to give audiences a reason to go back into movie theaters.

It's hard not to get excited, now that we see a ramping up of a return to some version of normalcy.

"It's hard not to get excited, now that we see a ramping up of a return to some version of normalcy," Jeff Goldstein, President of Domestic Distribution for Warner Brothers Pictures told NPR. "You walk in the door and you see people in the lobby, you smell popcorn. You then go into an auditorium and see the big screen. It's pure magic."

While Warner Brothers released Tenet in theaters around the world last summer, in a move that upset some in Hollywood, the studio ended up shifting its strategy and showing new films both in theaters and on its streaming platform, HBO Max, on the same day, as it did with Wonder Woman 1984 on Christmas. Next month, Warners will do it again, premiering its exuberant movie musical In the Heights, filled with singing and dancing in the streets of New York's Washington Heights, both in theaters and on HBO Max on the same day (June 11).

In a video during The Big Screen is Back, In the Heights director Jon M. Chu talked about how delighted he was to see his young daughter watch his film on a big screen for the first time, and how important it had been for him to see films like The Joy Luck Club on opening weekend with his family. "I remember going to dim sum afterwards and just talking about it and laughing about it, and feeling so seen."

Producer Jason Blum, the CEO and founder of Blumhouse, noted how the pandemic recovery coincides with shifting business models and corporate consolidation in the film industry. "It's tempting to quickly draw conclusions about what it all means, but," he said, hammering home the case for the theatrical experience, "if you told me right now that you were going to turn down the lights and show me any of the movies that were previewed here today, I would take that two-hour journey, knowing it might shift my perspective. It might move me to laughter or make me cry or scare the crap out of me if it was one of our movies. Or show me something profound about the human condition."

Universal Pictures screened the trailer for its latest installment of the Fast & Furious saga, F9, which opens in the U.S. on June 15. Filled with elaborate car chases shot from above, massive crashes and tons of action, it's the kind of potential blockbuster the studio made to be seen big. The film is already a hit in China.

Yes, there's the big screen spectacle and yes, perfect sound. And yes, there will be snacks. But the real reason we go to the movies is to be part of the amazing alchemy that takes place in movie theaters.

Actress Maggie Q, who costars with Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton in Lionsgate's upcoming The Protege, says their action movie is also made for the theatrical experience. "I think the big lesson of the last year," she told the audience, "is that none of us can get through this life alone. We all need human connection. And there is something magical about sitting in a dark theater with an audience expressing emotion together. Yes, there's the big screen spectacle and yes, perfect sound. And yes, there will be snacks. But the real reason we go to the movies is to be part of the amazing alchemy that takes place in movie theaters. As strangers become transformed together by being together, we are changed into a united audience through the emotions of the movie."

On the red carpet after his presentation, director J.J. Abrams reflected on seeing all the film clips on the big screen in the theater. "Being back in a movie theater, I actually feel like it's like it's inhaling oxygen," he said. "Seeing a movie, that sound, that crowd, that feeling, there's nothing like it. As much as it's fun to watch on streaming and being at home, and there's a convenience and it's lovely, it doesn't have the energy. It doesn't have the power. And I don't think it sticks in your, life experience, in your memory, the way it does being in a theater."

Among the other films coming soon to a movie theater near you: Respect, MGM's Aretha Franklin biopic, starring Jennifer Hudson; Summer of Soul, by director Questlove; and Disney's Jungle Cruise, with Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. And yes, there will be popcorn.

This story was edited by Nina Gregory and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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