• The coronavirus’ impact on the movie theater industry has been unquestionably brutal on two fronts — COVID-19 has decimated consumer demand to visit theaters, as well as leading scores of movies to push their release dates forward.
  • Those delays ensure that even if consumers felt it was safe to visit a theater right now, there wouldn’t be much of anything new to see.
  • This is why a number of the major cinema chains are rolling out deals that allow patrons to enjoy private screenings, free from any other guests.

No question, the coronavirus‘ impact has been particularly brutal on the movie exhibition business, with cinemas in many parts of the US now finding themselves in the unfortunate position of being back open — but with few new movies to show. And, even worse, they’re also facing a scarcity of customers, since many people still feel skittish — and understandably so — about the prospect of sitting alone in a room for two hours or so with strangers whose health you can’t vouch for.

Granted, movie theaters have gone to great lengths, as have other industries like airlines, to implement and talk up stringent new cleaning and COVID-19 safety protocols. But that nagging fear still lingers. What to do?

Theater chains ranging from the regional, multi-state company that owns most of the theaters here where I live in Memphis, as well as big cinema chains like AMC, think they may have a solution. Essentially, they’re private screening programs, where you pay on the order of $100 or so and can get an entire theater screening room to yourself. Problem solved, right? It’s just you, some number of guests you’re allowed to bring in (presumably people you live with and whose health you’re not taking a risk on), and nobody else.

“Make an AMC Auditorium All Yours,” reads the AMC page spelling out this deal. “Host a personal screening for one or make it a private party for up to 20 people total! It’s perfect for an everyday escape or a celebration to remember. Make AMC your next destination to meet friends and family and reserve an entire AMC Safe & Clean™ auditorium, starting at just $99+tax.”

AMC disclosed to investors in recent days that it could run out of cash by early next year, illustrating how dire things are for movie theaters right now. Compounding the loss of demand from customers who still perceive a possible coronavirus-related safety risk in visiting theaters is that, even if you did want to patronize one, there’s so little new product to see right now — Disney/Pixar’s Soul, for example, has shifted to be a Disney+ exclusive, and blockbusters like Dune and No Time to Die keep pushing their release dates into the future.

The Malco movie chain here in Memphis is offering a plan similar to AMC’s, as is Cinemark — though the latter mostly focuses on older movies. I have to admit, all things considered, I’m certainly tempted to take up this offer, only for the opportunity to see Tenet again by myself — as dystopian as it sounds to be watching it alone, in an empty room, on the big screen because of the pandemic outside. Seeing it the first time around, at a drive-in, was a welcome distraction and the first movie I’ve seen for most of 2020, but it’s a poor substitute for the experience of being in a theater. My real preference, of course, is for this whole thing to be over and for things to be back to normal — which we will, of course, be waiting a while longer for.

Andy is a reporter in Memphis who also contributes to outlets like Fast Company and The Guardian. When he’s not writing about technology, he can be found hunched protectively over his burgeoning collection of vinyl, as well as nursing his Whovianism and bingeing on a variety of TV shows you probably don’t like.