The Effects of COVID-19 on Film Distribution

Cover Photo by: Cristie Guevara

The Value of Movie Theaters

Since 1905 movie theaters have become a valuable source of entertainment throughout the last 115 years.

Unfortunately, in 2020, Americans were faced with a serious health threat; COVID-19. With many states closing, this meant mandatory closings for movie theaters across the country.

In order to release films safely and still turn a profit, many production companies opted for digital release. However, the idea has been met with public controversy concerning pricing.

Even now some movie-goers are reluctant to get back to the theaters due to safety. The question is: What will this mean for movie theaters across the country?

COVID-19 Effects on the Box Office

With theaters closing across the country, the box offices began to take big hits. The following charts show the comparative rates of the Top 10 ranked films based on total weekend revenue.

Chart 1 is a comparative rate of the weekend of February 15th, 2019 to the weekend of February 20th, 2020. As you can see, the revenue was not affected in 2020 as many Americans were not yet aware of COVID-19. This could be known as the pre-pandemic stage.

Chart 2 is a comparative rate of the weekend of March 15th, 2019 to the weekend of March 13th, 2020. As you can see, the revenue was somewhat affected in 2020. This weekend in 2020 was at the beginning of the COVID-19. Cases were beginning to rise, fears grew, and many states across the country were making decisions on closing the economy. Many Americans were starting to self-quarantine and thus making the decisions to stay home. This could be known as the beginning of the pandemic stage.

Chart 3 is a comparative rate of the weekend of August 9th, 2019 to the two weeks ago, the weekend of August 7th, 2020. While many theaters are only beginning to reopen, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the box office are clear. This is where are currently stand five months into the pandemic.

Forecast for the Future

In a survey published by Atom Tickets in May 2020, researchers conducted a survey of 1,500 movie goers to determine the public’s thoughts on returning to the cinemas. Surprisingly, 77% said that they would be willing to return to the theaters within a few months. The survey noted however that Americans felt the cinema experience would need to institute some safety measures to help audiences feel safer. 42.2% of survey respondents noted that a need for spacing in the auditoriums was a critical safety measure for their return. Other important safety measures respondents noted was heighted cleaning procedures (21.14%), followed by staff and guests wearing masks (14.36%).  They also noted that 88% preferred purchasing digital ticket from their own devices to reduce direct contact.  (

Pie Chart of Reaction Survey

As of now 37 states allow indoor movie theaters across the state, while 7 states allow movie theaters to be open regionally and 5 states have no current plans to reopen. North Carolina plans on reopening across the state on September 11th. (Brueggeman 2020)

According to AMC’s website, the company plans to reopen many of their theaters across the country starting August 20th. The map below indicates the number of theaters in each state that have reopening dates of either 8/20, 8/27 or 9/3. States in yellow currently have no reopening dates listed. For each theater not set to reopen the website states, “will reopen when local guidelines allow.”

Map of AMC Theaters reopening after 8/20- NOTE- The key represents numbers of 10 and over, 20 and over, 30 and over etc.

Despite deals to attract movie-goers back to theaters, for example, AMC recently announcing .15 cent ticket prices, some audiences across the country are worried.

Guidelines are varying from state to state. AMC notes on their website that property auditoriums will operate at 40% capacity using their new ticket system to block seats on either side of a party’s section. Safety procedures such as limiting their concession menus, restricting refills, cashless transactions and social distances standards will also be in place.

One of the biggest concerns for the public however, is that communication on wearing masks in theaters has been unclear. Unlike the U.K. where wearing masks in movie theaters at all times is the standard, few states have made this required protocol. ((Brueggeman 2020) Remember, that over 14% of respondents in the Atom Tickets survey noted the wearing masks as an important safety measure.

A quote from a freelance film critic says, “I’m excited to see movies in theaters again… I’m not sure when I will be doing that, though. I don’t have faith in the major chains that are not mandating that patrons wear masks. I think that’s incredibly reckless.” (Whitten 2020)

The Transition to Digital Distribution

With theaters closed, the film industry made a big transition. Digital releases and streaming services have become the new normal for catching the latest releases.  Back in April, Universal announced the digital release of Trolls: World Tour. The film set the record for a biggest opening day and opening weekend, charting at the tops of every streaming services (Amazon, Comcast, YouTube etc.) (Mendelson 2020)

Some movie-lovers have a discrepancy on the pricing of how much new first-fun digital films should cost, however. At the film’s release in April 2020, Trolls World Tour was priced at $19.99 as a digital rental. (Whitten 2020) Other digital releases such as The Invisible Man and Bloodshot had the same price tag.

A May 2020 survey conducted by Performance Research noted however that only 20% of the roughly 1,000 participants found $20 to be a reasonable price to stream a first-run movie.  (Vary 2020)

A New Beginning for Drive-in Movie Theaters?

For those who have been wanting to escape from their living rooms, drive-in theaters are making a comeback during the pandemic.  As non-essential businesses are beginning reopening stages, so are the 300+ drive-in theaters across the country. (Russo 2020)

BendFilm in Bend, Oregon, opened a drive-in film festival which will run every weekend in August. As of August 11th, each show had sold out. (Spurr 2020) Other businesses, who have opened drive-in theaters in their parking lots to turn a profit have also seen a positive impact. Francis Scott Key Mall in Frederick, MD launched “Park and Play: Dinner and a movie” event series which features food trucks, live music and a film shown on a large screen. The event series had also sold out in their first three events. (Riley 2020)

Walmart even recently announced that they will be converting 160 parking lots across the country into free drive-in movie theaters. (Elassar 2020)

Many however, do not expect this to be a long-term solution. Drive-in theaters are costly due to property taxes, make little from ticket sales, and rely mostly on concessions and selling snacks as in-door movie theaters do. 


No doubt the landscape of the theaters and the film industry is changing due to COVID-19. Americans have found safer solutions such as paying a higher ticket price to watch watch a digital release at home or enjoying the nostalgia of the drive-in movie theaters from the safety of their vehicle. This will at least be a temporary solution as theaters work to ensure the safety of movie-goers.

As Americans look forward to returning to the indoor movie theaters safety measures must be put in place. The country will be looking to hold their local movie theaters responsible for preventing the spread of the virus through safe social distancing, regular cleaning, digital ticket distribution and pre-ordering for concessions. If they can do so, movie theaters should be able to see a comeback.



Brueggemann, T. (2020, August 06). All Movie Theaters Have New Safety Guidelines, but They Vary Widely by State. Retrieved August 19, 2020, from

Elassar, A. (2020, August 15). Starting this weekend, Walmart is converting its parking lots into free drive-in theaters. Retrieved August 19, 2020, from

Mendelson, S. (2020, April 13). ‘Trolls: World Tour’ Breaks Records And Nabs Biggest Digital Debut Ever. Retrieved August 19, 2020, from

Riley, E. (2020, August 16). Drive-ins make return as families look for outdoor entertainment options. Retrieved August 20, 2020, from

Russo, D. (2020, March 29). ‘Blast from the past’: Some drive-in movie theaters are making a comeback amid coronavirus. Retrieved August 20, 2020, from

Vary, A. (2020, May 20). Study Shows 70% of Consumers Would Rather Watch New Movies at Home (EXCLUSIVE). Retrieved August 20, 2020, from

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