Coming soon: Theaters go back to the future with $2 retro blockbusters

The retro-movie plan to follow Universal Pictures' move to skip theaters altogether

With some states preparing to reopen movie theaters but few new releases on the books for months, Hollywood studios are offering exhibitors popular films including “Jaws” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” to entice wary audiences back to cinemas.

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For such older titles, studios are planning to take as little as 30% of ticket revenue, according to people familiar with the matter, a discount from the typical 50-50 split on new films, which have production and marketing budgets that studios need to recoup.

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Some venues will also turn back the clock on prices, charging as little as $2 to $5 a ticket, some theater owners said. Many of the movies on offer can be easily rented or are available on streaming platforms such as Netflix Inc.

In addition to “Jaws,” Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures is offering up titles including “Back to the Future” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” AT&T Inc.’s Warner Bros. is making a host of titles available, including all eight Harry Potter movies. Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. is offering some of its most popular films, including the four Hunger Games movies.

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Some states, including Texas and Georgia, have announced plans to allow theaters to reopen at limited capacities. Exhibitors have also been ramping up sanitation measures such as wiping down seats between showings.

Including drive-ins, more than 200 theaters are expected to be open in North America this coming weekend, said a person with knowledge of the market. As of 2019, there were more than 5,800 sites to watch movies in the U.S. alone, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

Wellfleet, MA, USA July 8, 2009 The Wellfleet Drive In welcomes its guests to their outdoor theater before the start of their feature movie

In March, Hollywood studios began clearing the schedule of new releases, as governments around the world closed theaters to restrict public gatherings and slow the spread of the coronavirus. With the U.S. aiming to slowly reopen the economy, Hollywood is hoping to begin releasing new films again this summer, starting with director Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” which Warner Bros. tentatively expects to release on July 17. Walt Disney Co. plans to premiere its $200 million live-action “Mulan” remake a week later. The film had been scheduled for March 27.

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Those plans could change if relaxed restrictions on public gatherings spur a surge in new infections, leading governments and health officials to reimpose limits.

Each state is implementing its own reopening strategy, with some capping attendance at 50% of available seats, or limiting gatherings to a fixed number of people. Arkansas said theaters could reopen this month, but for audiences fewer than 50 people.

The nation’s largest theater chain, AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., has said it plans to keep doors closed until new films become available.

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The retro-movie plan follows recent friction between exhibitors and Universal Pictures, after the studio began experimenting with skipping theaters altogether. Universal’s online release of sequel “Trolls World Tour” last month was more lucrative for the studio than the original’s domestic theatrical run, according to a person familiar with the matter. The strong performance as an online rental was buoyed by a theatrical-level marketing campaign that started before states implemented coronavirus lockdowns.

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Warner Bros. is premiering “Scoob” on Friday—the same day the animated film was originally slated to hit theaters—as a $19.99 rental or a $24.99 download.

Seattle-area exhibitor Jeff Brein said he doesn’t expect theaters to sell a lot of tickets to the old movies, but still welcomes the move by studios. “It’s a good test drive,” he said.

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