In last week’s column, we celebrated this summer’s revival of Maine’s drive-in theaters. We need our movies. During historic times of stress, fear, and uncertainty—the Great Depression, World War II, and the four-decades long Cold War, movies have been our escape mechanism.

This summer our movie theaters remain closed with no guidance yet from Gov. Mills (as of June 5) when they’ll reopen or under what future guidelines.

Until mid-March, when this pandemic closed everything down, movie studios and theaters were enjoying boom years.

During the past decade, when shopping mall foot traffic began to weaken from surging on-line retailers, anchor stores like Filenes were replaced by the movie mega-plex. Large screen entertainment, not store sales, now drew folks to the malls.

At the same time, the independent theaters — art houses in the cities or the single-screen theaters in our small towns, faced substantial pressure from the studios and distributors to convert over to digital.

The traditional 35 MM celluloid movie reel cost $2,000 to produce, while a modern digital print cost $125. The change over to digital cost $60,000 to $100,000 per screen. For too many towns and neighborhoods, they had seen their last picture show. The historic Oqunquit Movie Theater, a summer institution, was saved when the locals raised the $60,000 for its conversion to digital.

Industry figures show that by 2019, despite these small theater closures, there were 5,548 theaters with 40,613 screens (the highest in 10 years) and 321 drive-ins with 559 screens. Ticket sale revenues, the box office, reported as North American — combined U.S. and Canada — had reached $11.32 billion that year, a slight drop from 2018’s box office. The average ticket price was $9.14,

The movie studios on average take about 60 percent of a film’s U.S. ticket sales, most of it up front during a new release’s first few weeks. The longer a film plays at a theater, the sooner the theater begins to receive a share of the box office.

The era of the giant multi-screened theaters had arrived with recliners so comfortable you can at times hear snoring during the movie. Expanded concession stands have moved beyond the usual offering and now come with prices that have reached second-mortgage funding levels.

Smitty’s Cinema in Biddeford in April 2017. The cinema shut down for good because of the the coronavirus pandemic. File photo

A family of four can easily drop more than $50 for just popcorn and small drinks. Concessions pay the overhead bills for the local theater, so you almost have to accept this price gouging as a tip, keeping the theater’s doors open.

Cracks in that boom though were beginning to appear. Well before the pandemic, home theaters were gaining popularity with their comfy recliners, surround sound systems, popcorn machines, drink bars, and 90-plus inch screen sizes.

Sports and talk of man caves might have been the original motivator, but now there’s no shortage of movies to watch on the fairly inexpensive streaming platforms —Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney, etc.

During the past three months of isolation, we’ve done our share of online binging, but I believe that we’re the only two people in the country to pull the plug on “Tiger King” after only two episodes.

The future of our movie theaters will be determined by the laws of supply and demand. The traditional monopolistic control by the studios of our access to new films has been shattered by the explosive growth and inexpensive subscription costs of the streaming services.

The academy has recognized the inevitability of this transition by doing away with the requirement that a film had to run at least two weeks in major U.S. cities to be nominated. Now a studio will be able to move a new release directly to streaming or video sales. We’ll soon see an Oscar awarded to a film that has never appeared in a theater.

Back in January, movie production crews throughout the world packed up their cameras and went home to shelter from COVID-19. This crimp in the production pipeline means that streaming services, theaters, and the TV and cable networks will be facing a severe shortage of offerings down the road. Will 12 to 20 screen mega-plexes be able to fill their screens?

On the demand side, one of our biggest exports to China is our movies. Their number of theaters will soon double ours. Despite their love for our movies — action, special effects and superheroes, will the current back-and-forth heated rhetoric and tariff wars kill that market?

The most important factor on the demand side will be you, the former movie patron. Given months of voluntary home confinement, social distancing, and masks, will you be willing to risk a return to the theaters?

The Chinese are slowly reopening their theaters with capacity limitations — every other seat and every other row left vacant. That will probably be the guideline also in Maine. My calculations estimate that the new capacity would be about 30 percent of the old.

Would you want your spouse or date sitting two seats away? Would you keep a face mask on for over two hours? Could the studios with a 30 percent new theater capacity recoup their production costs? Could a theater financially survive with that limited capacity cap?

Each day now, many Maine businesses are doing the guidelines’ capacity math and deciding to close their doors. One local theater, Smitty’s in Biddeford, has closed for good. Jokers, an entertainment complex for kids in Westbrook, closed its doors after 27 years. The owner had calculated that his usual capacity of 350 would be reduced to a new 50 under the governor’s guidelines.

That decision to return to the movie theaters will be up to you. What will you do, if half-way through a movie, there in the dark, you hear dry hacking coughs or a series of moisture-laden sneezes? What level of risk are you willing to accept for a good movie?

Choose wisely.

Tom Murphy is a former history teacher and state representative. He is a Kennebunk Landing resident and can be reach at [email protected]

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