The pandemic’s best movie innovation is the private theater rental

The case for renting your own movie theater—even after the pandemic.
The case for renting your own movie theater—even after the pandemic.
Image: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
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If you like movies but hate other people, theaters have created a solution that could last even after the pandemic: renting out your own auditorium. And it just might help their struggling businesses too.

Tom & Jerry, a new film based on the 80-year-old cartoon characters of the same name, earned a respectable $14.1 million at the US box office this weekend—the second biggest opening haul of any movie since the pandemic began last year. Warner Bros. said the film was given an “enormous boost” by private theater rentals, Bloomberg reported.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced theaters to find creative ways to generate some cash as moviegoers were hesitant to head back to the cinemas. Last year, two of the three largest cinema chains in the US—AMC and Cinemark—started allowing private parties to rent their own auditoriums. (Classic movies cost $100, while new releases run $150.)

Theaters haven’t revealed much data about this experiment, but now we know it can have a nontrivial impact on box office take. According to Deadline, more than 10,000 screens have been booked for Tom & Jerry. At an estimated average of $200 per screen, that’d mean the film grossed $2 million (about 14% of its total) on private theater rentals alone.

The option seems especially enticing for large families desperate to get out of the house without venturing too far outside their bubbles. Masks are still required inside theaters except when eating or drinking. Groups can social-distance as much or as little as they want. For however long the movie runs, the theater is theirs.

Private theater rentals might be a pandemic-induced cultural innovation that lasts long after moviegoers have stopped thinking about masks or social distancing. With a group of 10, splitting the price of a theater rental for a new movie would cost about the same as if each person bought a ticket to a normal screening.

Right now, the economics for cinema chains make sense, as they are still desperately trying to fill seats amidst the pandemic. But, in a normal environment, they’d have to weigh the economics of reserving certain auditoriums for private parties. Studios would also likely have a say about which movies they make available for private rental, and when.

Still, the success of Tom & Jerry suggests film fans are itching to get back to the theaters in a way that is relatively safe. The film performed well despite bad reviews, capacity restrictions, and its simultaneous release on WarnerMedia’s streaming service, HBO Max. Less than half of all movie theaters in North America have reopened since shuttering during the early stages of the pandemic last year. New York City’s theaters will reopen for the first time this week.

The film’s box-office take is a sign that perhaps WarnerMedia’s controversial strategy to release its 2021 films online at the same time as in theaters won’t necessarily cripple the box-office prospects of each movie. That’s also good news for Disney, which is releasing an animated film, Raya and the Last Dragon in theaters March 5, the same day it’s put on its streaming platform, Disney+.

Theaters had a devastating 2020, leaving several, including AMC, on the brink of ruin. But if they can come out of the pandemic alive, they might have found a supplemental revenue stream for the future. And consumers could have a new way of going to the movies with friends and family without having to worry about screaming babies or someone kicking the back of your chair.