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COVID-19 pandemic leaves summer blockbusters at movie theaters uncertain

A year ago at this time, the movie "Avengers: Endgame" drew record crowds at movie theaters and was well on its way to becoming the highest grossing movie of all time.

This year, however, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to kill the summer blockbuster season, which is the movie season's most profitable period.

Theaters in Colorado Springs and across the country have been closed since mid-March, leaving viewers wondering when -- or if -- they'll reopen.

One concern theater owners have is that the pandemic also has brought movie production to a standstill, meaning that they'd have fewer new movies to show even if they were open.

The releases of some eagerly anticipated movies, such as "Top Gun: Maverick," "Black Widow" and "Wonder Woman 1984," have been delayed for 6 to 12 months, meaning viewers may not see them until late this year or early next year.

The general manager of one Colorado Springs theater said that many owners, assuming they get clearance to reopen soon, are targeting July 24 as a return date because it coincides with the scheduled release of the Disney movie, "Mulan."

"And that's only if the release date doesn't change between now and then," he said.

Theater owners are preparing to make changes required by social distancing guidelines -- changes that may further challenge their operations and profitability.

"We may have to block off three or four seats for every open seat," the general manager said. "We may have to leave every other row vacant. But the ventilation system is still going to circulate the same air, so that doesn't help. And how do you handle people having to use the restroom?"

The movie industry has been hurt in recent years by the rise of streaming services such as Netflix, and Universal Studios received widespread criticism this spring for deciding to release "Trolls World Tour" on an on-demand basis, bypassing theaters entirely.

"This pandemic is the second-biggest thing we've had to affect the industry," the general manager said. "The industry has to change. If it doesn't, this could be the beginning of the end."

He also said his theater isn't in danger of going out of business.

"We're holding on," he said. "It's hard for smaller theaters like ours to get any of the stimulus money, and we don't show the big mainstream movies. We show a lot of independent films, foreign films and documentaries."

The general manager said he's glad to see that the U.S. Senate and the White House agreed last week on a $2 trillion economic aid package to provide more assistance to the movie industry -- likely keeping some corporations out of bankruptcy.

"We're hurt the most by this pandemic, more than any other industry," he said. "We were the first that shut down and probably will be the last to reopen. We're low on the priority list. We're not getting mentioned at any of the governor's news conferences."

The plight of movie theater owners apparently doesn't help the area's lone drive-in theater, the Mesa in Pueblo. The owners said they don't know if they'll open this season because of the social distancing requirements they'll have to meet -- even with customers sitting in their own vehicles.

On Saturday night, the Rocky Mountain Vibes minor league baseball team showed the hit movie "Back to the Future" on the video screen at UCHealth Park. The field can hold up to 140 families and the team may continue showing movies this summer if no baseball games are played.

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Scott Harrison

Scott is a reporter for KRDO. Learn more about Scott here.