The lobby at the AMC Boston Common buzzed with dozens of twenty- and thirty-somethings awaiting friends ahead of the 8 p.m. screening of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” on a recent Thursday. Voices bounced off the walls. People fumbled with their phones pulling up pre-brought tickets. This was a packed premiere.
The new Marvel movie took in $180 million at North American cinemas over opening weekend and is expected to be one of the highest-grossing films of the year, which could prove critical for the movie theater industry as it tries to find its footing in 2022. Pandemic closures and streaming competition like Netflix and Hulu have clobbered exhibitors across the country.
After a revival over the summer, with blockbusters like “Top Gun: Maverick” and Jordan Peele’s “Nope” luring patrons in droves, the industry suffered its worst September since 9/11 (aside from 2020 during the height of the pandemic). AMC is more than $5 billion in debt, and Cineworld (which operates Regal Cinemas), filed for bankruptcy in September with about $5 billion in debt.
What should we take from this boom-and-bust cycle? That people will show up when there’s something they really want to see.
“I mean, a good movie — one that critics and audiences like — is always a draw,” said Ian Judge, managing director of the Somerville Theatre and Arlington’s Capitol Theatre. “Give them something to leave the house for, and they will.”
This Hollywood story isn’t about good and evil, experts say — it’s about supply and demand. “The biggest issue for the industry has been a lack of movies,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a movie theater analyst at Comscore.
Dergarabedian explained how COVID-related production delays contributed to 30 fewer films being released this year, compared with 2019.
“That’s a lot of movies, and so many of them were compressed into the summer months,” Dergarabedian said, adding that in 2019, there were about 100 wide theatrical releases, and in 2022, there will be closer to 70.
To help make up the deficit this year, AMC and other multiplexes hosted a first-ever “National Cinema Day” in September, offering $3 tickets to incentivize moviegoers. Theaters also introduced mobile food ordering, expanded alcohol sales, and invested in newer projectors and roomier recliners.
“I think movie theaters have had to reassess their marketing plans in the wake of the pandemic,” Dergarabedian said, noting it caused them “to get innovative and nimble and introduce different types of programming.”
Michael Leabman, 67, of Brookline had to adjust his moviegoing habits over the last two years. He used to go every Friday night for “date night” with his wife. “We’ve been wary of going back,” Leabman said, adding that they still go, just less frequently, and opt for the cinemas with spacious recliners. “I’m older, and the comfort of the seats makes a difference,” Leabman said. “I appreciate the separation you get. That does makes a big difference for us now.”
There’s something else that makes a big difference, he added: “I love popcorn — movie popcorn. I know every movie theater in the area and how good their popcorn is.” The best popcorn in Boston? The Dedham Community Theatre. “They have real butter,” Leabman said. “The popcorn varies . . . it could be 30 to 40 percent of the reason we go.”
A new cinema might check Leabman’s moviegoing boxes. Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas is opening its first-ever New England location in Boston’s Seaport in early 2023. It will be a 10-screen theater featuring luxury recliners in every auditorium and a mix of first-run films and repertory programs. The new theater will also serve a made-from-scratch food and beverage menu. Showcase Cinemas also recently announced the opening of a new eight-screen theater on Boston’s South Shore: Showcase Cinema de Lux at Hanover Crossing.
Still, many multiplexes weren’t able to stay afloat over the last two years. Boston lost some of its largest theaters, including the ShowPlace ICON theater in the Seaport, the ArcLight Cinemas at North Station, and Showcase Cinema de Lux in Revere.
Meanwhile, the area’s independent exhibitors have different business models that have bolstered them during uncertain times.
Katherine Tallman, CEO and executive director of the Coolidge Corner Theatre, explained how her four-screen theater doesn’t have to rely on new releases the way large chains do. Instead, indies like the Coolidge can lean on a robust schedule of repertory programming and educational offerings, which put them in a better position when there aren’t as many new releases to feature.
“We can make more money on one sold-out screening of a classic film than on a first-week release,” Tallman said.
Judge has found the same to be true at the Somerville and Arlington theaters.
“Right now, our repertory and classic film calendar can out-gross the commercial films,” Judge said, adding that in mid-October, Somerville’s double feature of “Psycho” and “Frenzy” outdid “Halloween Ends” by more than $2,800 on the same weekend.
“The problem is a lack of product that people want to see,” Judge said.
Both local indies and national chains are using special screenings to help balance the dwindling number of new releases that traditionally draw patrons to the theater. But this summer’s box office boom, particularly the success of the “Top Gun” sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick,” presented a bright spot for exhibitors everywhere.
“That was maybe the most important movie of the pandemic,” Dergarabedian said. “All audiences came out for it.”
“Maverick” has grossed $1.4 billion at the box office worldwide and is the fifth highest-grossing film in North American history, after “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens,” “Avengers: End Game,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” and “Avatar.” Another historic moment for “Top Gun: Maverick”: The film dominated domestic box office sales over Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. That’s never happened before, Dergarabedian said. He added that “Maverick” made at least $1 million a day for 75 consecutive days.
“If ‘Top Gun’ hadn’t done so well, if nothing was working, that would say people don’t need the movie theater experience. But that’s not what we’re seeing,” Dergarabedian said.
Judge at the Somerville and Arlington theaters also pointed to “Maverick”'s success: “I mean, Tom Cruise is a literal savior for cinemas that show mainstream movies.”
Judge and Tallman believe that the current landscape puts indies like theirs at a slight advantage over multiplexes because they’re able to more carefully tailor special programming to their communities.
“That’s the difference with us,” Tallman said. “We’re a community center, and we do a lot more with film.”
Across the industry, there was a summer boom and then a fall slump, but industry leaders seem optimistic that box-office sales will eventually return to pre-pandemic levels.
“I think we’re going to see a more orderly release schedule and release pattern,” Dergarabedian said of the 2023 film schedule, noting that the industry is planning to space out the timing of high-profile releases. “We’re finding our footing.”
He added that theaters are counting on movies like “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and the upcoming “Avatar: The Way of Water” to boost numbers before the end of the year.
Judge believes quality will eventually supersede quantity when it comes to the livelihood and longevity of cinemas. “The future is anyone’s guess, but it seems likely there will be fewer but better movie theaters,” he said. “People will pay money for a good movie and mostly pass on a badly reviewed one; that hasn’t changed in 100 years, and I don’t think it ever will.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the location of the Coolidge Corner Theatre. It is in Brookline. The Globe regrets the error.