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Encore: Movie theater owners are optimistic big audiences will return

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Will big audiences ever return to movie theaters? That was the big question hovering over a recent meeting of theater owners in Las Vegas - their first full convention in three years. Here's John Horn of Southern California Public Radio.

JOHN HORN, BYLINE: It felt a little like a reunion of Titanic survivors, and the setting fit - The Colosseum at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, where Celine Dion, who sang the blockbuster film's famous ballad, played for years. The thousands streaming into the arena were talking about different blockbusters - those that didn't yet exist. They had come to Las Vegas for CinemaCon, an annual convention for movie theater owners who are looking for hit films to bring customers back to their multiplexes. Few national businesses were as decimated by COVID as movie theaters.

Tom Rothman is the chairman and CEO of Sony Picture Entertainment's Motion Picture Group.

TOM ROTHMAN: We went through a near-death experience.

HORN: Three years ago, domestic box office receipts totaled $11.4 billion. In 2020 and 2021, the combined ticket sales were just a bit more than half of that. Entire chains and mom and pop venues closed for good. Thousands lost their jobs.

Ponci Gallegos is a national sales manager for American Licorice, the makers of Red Vines. Theaters and vending machines account for a little less than two-thirds of all American Licorice sales.

PONCI GALLEGOS: It's been kind of dismal.

HORN: And all the while, movie fans bolted to streaming sites by the millions.

At CinemaCon, movie studios bring in stars and show hours of film clips and sometimes entire movies, like the new "Top Gun" sequel, for theater owners, hopeful their upcoming releases will lure audiences back to the multiplex.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

TOM CRUISE: (As Maverick) In three, two, one.

HORN: Spoiler alert - Tom Cruise's Maverick survives. And people are returning to theaters, even if attendance remains well below pre-pandemic levels.

JOHN FITHIAN: The attitude in the hallways, the conversations with the members who operate motion picture theaters around the country and around the world then versus now, is dramatically different.

HORN: John Fithian is the president and CEO of the National Association of Theater Owners, which stages CinemaCon.

FITHIAN: There's optimism about the coming movie slate, and there's optimism about our patrons coming back out to cinemas. Those are two things that we thrive on.

HORN: On December 17 last year, in the middle of the omicron surge, Sony Pictures released "Spider-Man: No Way Home."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME")

TOM HOLLAND: (As Peter Parker) But how do you tell someone that you're Spider-Man?

HORN: The Sony Marvel movie has grossed more than $800 million in domestic theaters so far. Without adjusting for inflation, that makes "Spider-Man" the third-highest grossing domestic release ever.

ROTHMAN: I would say that business doesn't survive. It actually thrives. Not only can it survive, it can overcome a global pandemic, which it's in the process of doing.

HORN: Unlike most other studios, Sony preserved what's known as a theatrical window. That's the time, historically around three months, from when a film hits the multiplex to when it premieres on places like Netflix or HBO Max. At CinemaCon, the studios pledged they would open their movies exclusively in theaters going forward.

But movie-going habits might be irrevocably transformed. Well before the pandemic, theater owners were steadily losing customers. And even if Netflix just reported its first subscriber loss in a decade, overall streaming growth is staggering - up some 18% from a year ago, according to one new study.

For NPR News, I'm John Horn in Las Vegas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL GIACCHINO'S "ARACHNOVERTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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