Coronavirus to test U.S. movie theater box office


LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – U.S. theater operators moved to prevent the spread of coronavirus and reassure audiences ahead of a weekend with options ranging from satirical thriller “The Hunt” to Pixar animated adventure “Onward” and faith-based film “I Still Believe.”

Ticket sales over the next few days will provide insight into the movie business’ resilience during the outbreak, box office analysts said.

The United States and Canada, which comprise the world’s largest movie market, had been barely affected while theaters were closed in China, Italy and a few other countries. But concerns about the global virus outbreak hit shares of theater chains this week, with AMC Theatre’s down nearly 20%.

The two largest U.S. theater chains, AMC and Cineworld Group Plc’s Regal Cinemas, said they had halved their seating capacity to allow more space between moviegoers to prevent virus transmission.

The chains also limited seating in a single theater.

No auditorium will allow more than 250 people, AMC said on Friday, adding that it had ordered additional cleaning of kiosks, restrooms, handrails and other areas and urged anyone feeling sick to stay home.

In the United States, theaters have remained open in times of national crisis including after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and during World War II.

“AMC remains firmly committed to offering a clean, healthy, entertaining environment every time,” the company said in a statement.

While choices are varied this weekend, new movies will be limited in the next few weeks. Hollywood studios have postponed several upcoming blockbuster action films including James Bond thriller “No Time to Die,” Walt Disney Co’s epic “Mulan” and the ninth “Fast and Furious” movie from Comcast Corp’s Universal Pictures.

“What’s going to happen the next weekend when no big films are on the release schedule, and what happens the weekend after that?” said Jeff Bock, senior media analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co. “I don’t know if (theaters) will be able to stay open just because there is no product.”

Cineworld, which operates 9,500 theaters worldwide including 7,000 in the United States, said on Thursday the worst-case scenario it envisioned would be closing theaters for up to three months.

The number of coronavirus cases and level of worry about its spread varies in different U.S. cities, Bock said. Ticket sales will hinge partly on what people tell their friends about conditions they find at theaters.

“It’s going to be word of mouth on a different level,” Bock said. “Not on whether the movie was good, but on whether they had enough Purell and wipes.”

Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Richard Chang

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