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Austin movie theaters brace for new normal—and a summer without blockbusters
(Never Settle Media/Shutterstock)

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It seems like a simple question: When will movie theaters reopen in Austin and elsewhere, and when will we be able to see the traditional summer blockbusters?


But the answer is far from simple. In fact, most theater owners don't want to talk about it or make any promises. And that's probably to be expected, since no one knows whether the novel coronavirus that shut everything down in March will be causing trouble through the July holiday box-office bonanza.

Representatives of the Alamo Drafthouse, which operates six theaters in the Austin area, say they are not ready to talk about reopening plans and re-released an earlier statement, saying that any reopening will be "a very complex project that involves countless new procedures and equipment, all of which will require extensive training."

Another large chain, Plano-based Cinemark, said the company is "currently working toward a mid-summer opening date, contingent upon health and safety regulations, as well as availability of studio content." The Cinemark representative said that the first major release currently scheduled is Christopher Nolan's "Tenet," set for July 17. But the representative said that it's important to note that a return to "normalcy" might span multiple months.

(Warner Bros.

Robert Pattinson and John David Washington star in Christopher Nolan's movie, "Tenet." (Warner Bros.)

Cinemark's mention of "Tenet" is key. It's a major Warner Bros. release, with a budget of around $200 million, according to various industry sources, and if lots of theaters aren't in a position to be open by mid-July, then it might be pushed to a later date. And that would probably delay the opening of theaters even longer.

So far, Warner Bros. is sticking with the July 17 release date, but a new trailer released online in late May does not mention a specific date for a theatrical debut. And that has set off a new round of internet speculation about whether the movie will be pushed back to August or even later.

The key point is this: If Hollywood isn't releasing any big movies because of fears about the coronavirus, then theaters have little reason to reopen.

That's not to say that some theaters haven't bucked conventional wisdom. Evo Entertainment in Kyle and Santikos Entertainment in San Antonio have opened a few screens but with significant safety requirements and much-reduced capacity. But since Hollywood has stopped its new releases, they have reduced ticket prices and are showing older movies, like the Harry Potter series, "Dirty Dancing," "Grease" and some movies like "The Invisible Man" that were released just before the virus-related closures.

The Austin Film Society, which operates an art theater off of Middle Fiskville Road, is still closed, even though it's offering streaming of arthouse movies on its website, as are the Violet Crown and the Alamo Drafthouse.

A spokesperson for the AFS Cinema said that any reopening of the theater "is going to take careful consideration."

Cinemark representatives say they, like everyone else, are waiting to see what happens with the transmission of the virus as well as what Hollywood ultimately decides. Here's some of what they've compiled for what they hope will be the summer and fall seasons, although it's all subject to change:


TenetJuly 17
MulanJuly 24
The Spongebob MovieAug. 7
WW84Aug. 14
A Quiet Place Part IISept. 4
The ConjuringSept. 11
Black Widow Nov. 6
No Time to Die!Nov. 27

If studios keep pushing back films like "Tenet," then there will be a domino effect. And theater owners in Austin and across the country could face even more problems with rent and upkeep of properties.

Sky Cinemas in Dripping Springs has already closed—permanently. "With our business closed due to COVID and no revenue coming in, we were unable to pay our rent," the company said in a statement posted on the web in May.

Sky Cinemas was founded by Bill Banowsky, who also founded the Violet Crown Cinema in Austin, which eventually expanded to Santa Fe, N.M., and Charlottesville, Va.

"I don't think anyone knows when Hollywood will start releasing films again," Banowsky wrote in an email. "This is not a three-month problem, with the movie theater business opening up again in July and carrying on where it left off. There will be substantial lingering effects from this virus. It may take a year or more before the movie industry returns to pre-COVID levels of business."

About half of U.S. theaters operating under the Alamo Drafthouse name are franchises. And like Sky Cinemas, they're apparently feeling the economic pain.

On May 15, three Alamo franchise locations in the Phoenix area filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, according to Craig Paschich, majority owner of the franchises.

In a statement issued to the news media, Paschich said he hopes the theaters will reopen eventually. "Our intention is to use this opportunity to reorganize our finances and plan for the road ahead," the statement says. "We're also currently working closely with the corporate team in Austin to determine our next steps."

Editor's note: This article has been updated with additional comment.

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