Like so many other things, the movie industry looks a little different after a year and a half of COVID.

But while Hollywood has changed, some things, thankfully, have not — people still love the theater experience.

Maine theaters are getting busy, the Portland Press Herald reported, as movies begin to return en masse to the big screen, and studios and moviegoers alike start to feel their way through what that means in this new era.

Nationwide, after a time when the biggest releases were held back or sent straight to streaming, the top hits have started hitting theaters again, with “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” “F9,” “A Quiet Place Part II,” and “Black Widow” all doing big business.

While the money being made at theaters is still below pre-pandemic levels overall, there is reason to be optimistic that business will soon be back to normal as the remaining theaters open up after their COVID break. An official from the Smitty’s Cinema chain said its three theaters in Maine could be back to 2019 levels of paid attendance as soon as this month.

Last winter, the movie theater business didn’t look so hot. COVID meant people had to take a break from going out, accelerating the growth of the streaming services that studios were using increasingly to create and put out entertainment. Unsure of when theaters were going to be safe again, some studios began releasing their first-run movies on streaming.

So as theaters closed up shop temporarily, and some struggled to survive at all, people got used to being able to watch the top releases first thing from the comforts of home. Would they ever want to go back to a theater again?

Yes, as it turns out, they would. “A Quiet Place” opened in May with just under $50 million in ticket sales. “F9” earned $70 million domestically its first weekend. “Black Widow” made $80 million.

In the best sign yet that theaters are coming back, Warner Bros. recently announced it would put its biggest 2022 releases directly in theaters, 45 days before they become available on HBO Max; all of their 2021 movies were released on both platforms simultaneously.

They may get back to normal faster here in Maine, where the low level of COVID cases and high vaccination rates have people feeling safe. The theaters that are open are already doing good business, the Press Herald reported, and there is strong interest in reopening the three theaters in the Cinemagic chain that closed last year. A national chain also is opening a theater in Westbrook at the Rock Row development.

After a year marked in many cases by solitude, it’s clear there are people for whom getting back to normal means getting back to seeing movies surrounded by strangers. That’s great — that means the movie-going experience will survive, something that was in question not too long ago.

Still, at least one big question remains for the movie industry, which depends on theater showings to rake in money in a way streaming has not yet.

After watching from home, and with the virus still lurking, will the larger public return to theaters in the same numbers as before?

That largely depends on the theaters themselves. We go out to the movies because it is wholly different experience than watching at home.

But as TVs and sound systems have improved, that difference has narrowed. Regardless of how studios handle first-run movies, there is a nearly unlimited amount of entertainment available at home.

That’s enough to keep a lot of people from their couch. It’s up to the theaters to come up with a better reason for going out.

 


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