Film fans are increasingly facing a question that would have seemed impossible even a year ago: Are movie theaters about to disappear forever? With the coronavirus pandemic not ending in the immediate future, with many theaters around the country still closed, with studios pushing their big releases back further and further in 2021 and 2022, the theatrical industry faces greater and greater peril. Regal Cinemas has already re-closed the theaters they reopened around the end of the summer due to lack of customers and lack of new movies. Now their biggest rival says they face significant financial issues as well.

CNN reports that AMC Theatres announced it could run out of money by the end of the year without some sort of new funds. Basically there are only two solutions to the problem:

AMC Theatres said Tuesday that its existing cash resources would be "largely depleted" by the end of 2020 or early 2021 because of the "reduced movie slate for the fourth quarter," as well as "the absence of significant increases in attendance from current levels." The company said it has two ways out of its cash crisis: Either more customers need to buy tickets, or it will have to find new ways to borrow money.

AMC says it’s seen 2.2 million customers return since they reopened during the summer — a reduction in attendance from 2019 of some 85%. That’s not good.

Barring some very inventive advertising, or ideas for allowing visitors to use their theaters for things other than movies (video games, TV, private parties), that first option does not seem very viable. Which means AMC needs to borrow more money — and the company already has quite a bit of debt. And now the clock is ticking. The longer we go without a vaccine for the virus, the longer audiences don’t feel safe to return to theaters, the realer the possibility that when things do improve the movie theater industry will be a shell of its former self forever.

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