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Are movie theaters back in business?


Been quite a summer at the movies - "Minions," "Thor," dinosaurs and Cruise control.


TOM CRUISE: (As Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell) Good morning, aviators. This is your captain speaking. Today's exercise is dogfighting.

SIMON: Tom Cruise in "Top Gun: Maverick" has already topped $1.2 billion worldwide at the box office, which made us wonder, is that success a sign that movie theaters are back in business? Matt Belloni covers the movie business and is founding partner of Puck. Thanks so much for being with us.

MATT BELLONI: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So what does it mean, the success of "Top Gun: Maverick"? Is this an outlier or a sign of things to come?

BELLONI: People say, oh, the movies are back. And for a certain type of movie, yes, the movies are back. We have the big hits - Marvel movies still doing well. Kids movies has shown with "Minions" and with - earlier, before summer - "Sonic The Hedgehog" that you can bring a family audience back. Although the Disney movie "Lightyear" did not work in theaters. But the dramas, the middle-of-the-road action movies that are not the A-list franchise tentpoles - those have really struggled. And the studios are still spooked to a certain degree. They're just not releasing a lot of these movies in theaters. Partly is because of the pandemic and some of the delays that came along with that. But partly is because it's a chicken-and-egg problem. They don't see evidence that there is an audience for the mid-budget and lower-budget drama movies in theaters, so they're just not putting them in. But there can't be a surprise hit if they're not in theaters.

SIMON: Yeah. Are movie theaters trying to come up with some kind of new formula - I don't know - bigger and better snacks, drinks?

BELLONI: They are. I mean, most of the theater chains now offer alcohol. And they didn't used to do that. They will offer refurbished seating. And you can buy premium-format screen tickets. That does enhance the theater experience. They could also do things to appeal to younger audiences, maybe have an all-texting screening. And I know that's been experimented at certain theaters. You laugh. But if there was a, you know, anything-goes text-and-post screening of a movie and you knew that going in, there probably would be an audience for that.

SIMON: How do all these questions about where the industry is now and who's making money affect the kind of movies that'll wind up being made?

BELLONI: It absolutely does impact the movies that are being made because if you can't see a path to $100 million for a prestige drama, you're less likely to take a risk on that movie. And there are other options. You know, you could sell a movie to Netflix. We saw this last year, where the biggest hit out of Sundance was a film called "CODA," which was bought by Apple for $25 million - did not get a theatrical release, yet Apple successfully got that movie, campaigned for Oscars, and it won best picture. But that is the rare example. For the most part, these movies are bought up by the streaming services. They're put on the platform. People can see them there. But they aren't having those giant, big $100 million, $200 million breakouts - the "La La Lands" of the world.

SIMON: Is there one or two movies in particular you're watching for what they might tip to us about the movie business.

BELLONI: I think, in the fall, they're really counting on two things. First is the "Black Panther" sequel, which we have seen no footage of. The sequel will be without Chadwick Boseman, you know, who obviously passed away tragically. We don't know how he's going to be incorporated at all. But there may be a groundswell of emotion to push that movie into the rarefied air of, you know, 1.5 billion, even higher, potentially. Beyond "Black Panther," the other movie that the theater owners are really watching closely is "Avatar 2." I mean, this is the sequel to the highest-grossing movie of all time. James Cameron has been working on this for a decade. And even if "Avatar 2" does half the business of the first one, that's still, you know, a billion and a half of business, which would be amazing for these theater owners.

The problem is most of the projections I've seen for 2022 have the moviegoing business at about 70% of normal. Normal being the 2019 numbers. That's not great if you are in the theater business. So while the studios may have hits, the aggregate for the movie business means, we're not back. And the projections for next year are better, but not 100% of where we were.

SIMON: Matt Belloni is founding partner of Puck. He reports on Hollywood. Thanks so much for being with us.

BELLONI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.