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Encore: Movie theaters are hot again

PIEN HUANG, HOST:

It's being called the "Barbie" boost. Going to the movies is hot again because of audience magnets like "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer." NPR's Elizabeth Blair looks at whether the booming theater business can be sustained.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The global box office hit $4.5 billion in July, according to the research firm Gower Street. It's the single highest-grossing month since before the pandemic began.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BARBIE")

ARIANA GREENBLATT: (As Sasha) Where are we going?

MARGOT ROBBIE: (As Barbie) Barbieland.

GREENBLATT: (As Sasha) What?

BLAIR: On a recent Friday afternoon, plenty of women were out to see "Barbie" at the Regal in Silver Spring, Md.

ELIA SAFIR: None of us own any pink, so we all had to borrow from other people.

BLAIR: Twenty-year-old Elia Safir and her friend Maya Peak say they usually watch movies at home on one of the streaming services. But...

MAYA PEAK: This is my second time seeing it (laughter).

BLAIR: Do you think the experience will get you going back to the theaters more often?

PEAK: I think if they could replicate something where it's more of, like, an event for us all to go, where it was actually more involvement and participation, that would be really cool because, you know, you can't get that just by sitting at home.

BLAIR: Some theaters have life-sized Barbie boxes for photo ops, pink Corvette-shaped popcorn buckets and pink drinks.

PAUL BROWN: We sold, you know, 7,000 froses or something like that. I can't keep the rose on the shelf.

BLAIR: Paul Brown owns the Terrace Theater in Charleston, S.C. He says "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" are fueling the box office, but other movies are also doing well.

BROWN: We have "Meg," which is very popular because we live in a beach town where there's a bunch of sharks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MEG 2: THE TRENCH")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Everybody out of the water.

BROWN: We have "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" because there's a dearth of good children's movies out. So that's bringing in an audience and also bringing in an older set that sort of grew up with that brand.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: MUTANT MAYHEM")

NICHOLAS CANTU: (As Leonardo) Remember; don't let any humans see you because, why?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters) Humans are the demon scum of the Earth. Avoid them.

BLAIR: The competition for humans' leisure time is fierce, and theaters have faced all kinds of challenges over the decades - big screens in people's homes, television got really good, COVID. Michael O'Leary of the National Association of Theater Owners says critics have predicted the demise of cinemas before.

MICHAEL O'LEARY: Obviously, having a global pandemic where the government, you know, basically told you you could not operate as a movie theater - you know, that's an unprecedented challenge. But even in that context, you saw the industry pull together and move forward.

BLAIR: Only about 5% of theaters closed during the pandemic. Now they're facing the writers and actors strikes. Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst for ComScore, says the prolonged strikes could disrupt the pipeline of movies.

PAUL DERGARABEDIAN: Where this becomes very problematic is over the long term. If you don't have actors and writers, you don't have movies. If you don't have movies, you don't have box office. And movie theaters need movies to sustain their business.

BLAIR: And to thrive, he says, theaters need all parties to work together, from studios to marketers to actors, writers and directors. But even when everyone is firing on all cylinders, it's not a guarantee of box office success. Theater owner Paul Brown.

BROWN: These are good movies. These are good, original movies. They're not based on comic books. For our audience, you know, we'll do OK with the Marvels. But there's a fatigue out there for that kind of stuff, if you ask me.

BLAIR: Brown says he'll keep showing "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" for as long as the economics make sense. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.

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