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Cineplex Entertainment released a statement Monday night saying they were temporarily closing their theatres due to the coronavirus outbreak.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Four months ago, when the Paradise cinema was resurrected thanks to a shiny and expensive makeover, I half-jokingly suggested that the theatre might be the last new movie house to ever open in Toronto. On Monday morning, it announced it was closing.

As did every other independent cinema in the city, from single-screen cinemas like the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema to neighbourhood institutions like The Revue and The Royal to art-house multiplex the TIFF Lightbox. As did, eventually, the country's largest exhibitor, Cineplex Entertainment, which operates 165 theatres nationwide.

“The health and safety of our employees and guests is paramount and while measures like enhanced cleaning protocols and social-distancing policies were put in place, the time has come for us to do more,” Cineplex, which has about a 75 per cent market share in Canada, said in a statement released Monday night. “We greatly appreciate your understanding and look forward to welcoming you back soon. Until then, please be well and take care of yourselves.”

About 12 hours later, U.K. exhibition giants Odeon, Picturehouse and Cineworld, the latter of which is still in the process of acquiring Cineplex, announced they were closing their cinemas, too. Already, cinemas are shuttered in New York and Los Angeles, while American multiplex titan Regal, owned by Cineworld, has suspended operations at its 549 theatres “indefinitely.”

As precautionary measures against the spread of COVID-19 ramp up across sectors, it is now impossible to see a film in a theatre in much of the world. And however long the pandemic lasts, the industry – the very idea of going out to the movies – has been irrevocably altered.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, though, movie-going was in tumult. In an entertainment landscape where a world of content is available on the screen of your choice for a fraction of the cost of a movie ticket, theatre attendance has declined steadily. Combine the technological disruptions of the streaming era with a dearth of genuinely original films coming down Hollywood’s production pipeline – last year’s top 10 earners at the global box office were all either sequels, reboots or remakes – and a general unpleasant corporate multiplex experience thanks to high concession prices and an onslaught of pre-show advertisements, and it becomes increasingly difficult to see why anyone but the most hardened of cinephiles would want to step inside a darkened auditorium on a Saturday night. Even Cineplex has spent considerable effort investing in almost everything but movie theatres.

As much as there is to love and cherish about the movie-going experience – especially if you visit a slick and keenly programmed independent cinema like the Paradise, or are able to bask in the luxe art-house environs of, say, the TIFF Lightbox – the future of the theatre was dim before anyone uttered the word coronavirus.

Yet the industry erosions arrived this week more quickly than anyone could have predicted. First, the National Association of Theatre Owners cancelled their annual CinemaCon industry confab in Las Vegas, just days ahead of Vegas itself shutting down. From that moment – when theatre owners are worried about congregating in one spot, there’s little hope they can convince audiences to do the same – it’s been one gigantic, unprecedented development after another.

Disney announced that it would make Frozen 2 available on its Disney+ streaming service three months ahead of schedule, effectively wiping away the traditional window of time between when movies would exit theatres and be available on the home-entertainment market – a window that, up until this current public-health crisis, was a massive industry sticking point, with theatres threatened by streamers like Netflix that wanted to release movies online either the same day they were released in theatres or just weeks later. (The entire skirmish between movie theatres and Netflix over The Irishman seems entirely antiquated right now.)

A few days after the Disney move, Universal Pictures announced that, starting this Friday, three of its movies that were recently in theatres (The Invisible Man, The Hunt, and Emma) plus one film that was set to open in April (Trolls World Tour) would become available to digitally view at home – and that a 48-hour rental period would cost just US$19.99, or roughly the cost of two movie tickets. (Trolls will be available in Canada the same time as the U.S., though details are still being worked on regarding the rest of Universal’s slate.) Then Warner Bros. revealed that its superhero film Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, which was released in theatres just more than a month ago, will be available for digital purchase next week, months ahead of schedule and priced at US$19.99.

Meanwhile, Canadian distributors are currently engaged in discussions about which of their spring releases might swap theatrical exhibition for digital release, and it is guaranteed that the same discussions are happening inside every movie studio across the world.

Right now, the industry-wide talking point is that these are temporary measures for an extraordinary, unprecedented cultural and economic reality. But what if everyone’s abundance of caution lasts not weeks, but months? Movie studios need revenue, and audiences are going to demand content – blockbusters, no matter how big or explicitly designed for a big-screen experience, cannot stay on the shelf indefinitely. Plus, some of those studios have newly launched streaming services that could use ever more subscribers. What better way for Warner Bros. to make a splash with its forthcoming service than announce it would be debuting the new Wonder Woman sequel online? (Of course, whether studios will actually be able to produce new movies is an open question; right now, most in-production films have shut down over contagion concerns.)

Anyone owning a theatre right now has to be completely terrified. Not only is the public-health situation dire, but now studios, their long-time partners in the theatrical experience, are turning on them. At the moment, anyone who cherishes the transformative communal experience of seeing a film in the dark has nowhere to go. April suddenly seems a long way away – but a clear, safe future for exhibitors seems even harder to glimpse.

Still, there is hope. On Monday, a cinema in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang reopened its doors after going dark for two months. Nobody came. But it’s a start.

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