Welcome Back: The Motion Picture Association Salutes Theatrical Exhibition’s Recovery from the Challenges of the Pandemic

Photo Courtesy Motion Picture Association.

By Charlie Rivkin, Chairman and CEO, The Motion Picture Association

The movies. Those two simple words open doors to some of my most treasured and powerful memories. Nearly every movie I have loved and enjoyed is inextricably connected to the theater where I first saw it, whether it was under the stars at a drive-in theater in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, as a kid, in a downtown theater in Chicago during high school, or, more recently, at our state-of-the-art theater at the Motion Picture Association’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

It wasn’t just the great stories that captured my excitement. It was the experience of watching those movies with an audience, all of us collectively holding our breath, tearing up, or outright laughing, depending on whatever we were watching. Few things compare to that experience.

That’s why I could not be more excited about the extraordinary resurgence this great industry is experiencing right now, in the wake of one of the most difficult years in a generation. And it could not come at a better time for theater owners. 

I am writing this on the heels of Memorial Day weekend, the traditional kickoff to the summer movie season and just a few weeks before we gather in person at CinemaCon. I haven’t felt this encouraged in a while. The numbers say it all, thanks in part to the recent openings of A Quiet Place Part II and Cruella. 

And of course, moviegoers and the industry alike are looking forward to F9, which—at the time of writing—was already closing in on $300 million internationally, an encouraging harbinger for the season of blockbusters. Godzilla vs. Kong was the first big box office hit this year, recently crossing the $100 million mark in the U.S., with a total global box office take of close to $350 million. 

It’s early days yet, as many say. However, these numbers are reassuring as they reaffirm what we know in our hearts to be true: The movies are an eternal comeback story. There are many reasons for this, but, first and foremost, the credit for that belongs to the industry itself, which was born making innovation out of necessity.

The pandemic proved that. Countless jobs were lost, productions were either curtailed or shut down altogether, while cinemas shuttered around the globe. Despite these enormous setbacks, our industry once again proved to be as adaptable and innovative as it is resilient. We led the way in creating effective health and safety protocols for our workers, in cooperation with our union partners and governments at home and around the world, so that we could return to work safely, responsibly, and sustainably. We brought back much of our workforce at a speed that outpaced other industries and, at the same time, achieved one of the lowest positivity rates in the country among our workers.

Theater owners were very creative with their business models. Many found new ways to stay in business, from offering popcorn pickup and delivery to renting out their theaters to private groups. And the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) sponsored an alliance of more than 425 companies, accounting for more than 33,200 screens nationwide, to commit to implementing expert-backed, industry-specific health and safety protocols.

This isn’t the first time, of course, that our industry has faced adversity. And every time we’ve been able to evolve and innovate. More than 70 years ago, we were contending with the dawn of TV, then VCRs, then DVDs, and yet films and theaters continued to thrive. 

While there’s no denying that 2020 was a win for streaming and home entertainment, and a challenging year for theatrical exhibition, there were positive indications that all aspects of our industry would once again thrive. Great stories kept us entertained, connected, and inspired throughout the last year. Audiences demonstrated an intense desire to watch those stories on any screen.

Even though most people—by necessity—watched those stories at home, on laptops, and on other personal devices, they never lost their appetite for enjoying the big-screen experience. For example, drive-in theaters, as many news stories have attested, enjoyed their highest returns in decades. 

Now that more and more theaters are opening, the recent flurry of moviegoing proves at least two things: Desire remains strong, and the availability of home and mobile entertainment does not diminish it. In fact, as I’ve said for many years, the theatrical experience and streaming markets thrive together. Just as people love to eat at home, they also love to go to restaurants. Streaming and theaters are not at odds; they complement each other. People are hungry for both.

As the Motion Picture Association marks its 100th anniversary next year, we will be highlighting the critical work of our member companies that grow our industry, protect creators and content, and support theater owners who have been the proprietors of the magic we call the movies since the 1890s. 

As we look to our next century—one in which we will continue to innovate while doing what we do best, by telling great stories that we all love and that reflect the diversity of our audiences, we will continue to grow the important ecosystem of producers, exhibitors, and audiences that enables us all to thrive. We will continue to strengthen every economy we touch. And perhaps most importantly, we will strive to tell everybody’s story.

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