The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the head of Regal Cinemas believes movie theaters are on the verge of a major comeback

‘Cinema will live forever,’ says Mooky Greidinger, the head of the world’s second-largest chain

The Regal Cinemas in Times Square is seen on March 24 in New York City. Regal Cinemas parent company, Cineworld, announced on Tuesday that its theaters will begin stages of reopening beginning April 2 with attendance limited between 25 percent and 50 percent capacity in about 500 locations. The company’s chief executive, Mooky Greidinger, thinks Regal can lead a theater comeback (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Cineworld is one of the most important entertainment companies in the world, and Mooky Greidinger is the most important person at Cineworld.

The movie-theater chain operates 2,500 screens throughout Europe and Regal Cinema’s 7,500 screens in the United States, making it the world’s second-largest chain and a key determinant of what gets seen by millions.

After a difficult year in which Cineworld reported its first-ever loss thanks to the pandemic, the company is now experiencing a setback on its reopening plans. The slow vaccine rollout in Europe has put the brakes on a quick comeback there. Questions linger over whether American consumers will flock to theaters. Warner Bros., which has some of theaters’ most anticipated movies, will continue to release its films simultaneously on HBO Max through the end of the year, flouting the so-called theatrical window.

And Disney this week said it would roll out its Marvel title “Black Widow” and “101 Dalmatians”-set picture “Cruella” on Disney Plus at the same time as theaters, further delaying exclusive new product.

But Greidinger, Cineworld’s chief executive, believes bright days lie just ahead. He has made a decision to begin opening Regal theaters in the U.S. as early as next week. The Israel-based executive (he started his career at his family’s chain Cinema City before it became part of Cineworld) has also just cut a deal with Warner Bros. for a 45-day window in the U.S. And he is maintaining his optimism despite the Disney news, which he says deeply disappointed him.

The Washington Post talked to him by phone from Tel Aviv. (The conversation has been compressed and edited lightly for clarity.)

Let’s start with the most immediate news: Disney’s decision to debut several big new films on Disney Plus. How do you feel about it?

Of course I’m upset. Movies like “Cruella” and “Black Widow” deserve a significant window to get maximum revenue. Disney’s gross in 2019 alone is more than $13 billion [worldwide]. I believe it’s a mistake. But it’s not my decision to make.

You can decide not to play the films, though. Would you do that?

I am sure at the end of day there will be a solution. Maybe not for these movies, maybe for the future. But they just made the announcement two days ago. We’ll wait and see how it develops and then make our decisions.

You came to what I think a lot of experts believe is a pretty good deal with WB — 45 days is when the lion’s share of box office is made. Yet you’re showing the studio’s movies in 2021 even though they’ll be on HBO Max.

This is the nature of partnership; sometimes you have to give things up. It was clear Warner Bros. could not back off the commitment it made. For us, we were willing to compromise on a few movies for the sake of the future.

When WB announced its move last December it seemed like a true rift — the studios saying, after many years of tension, “We’re finally going to make a go of it ourselves.” Did you see it that way?

I don’t think I can hide fact that I didn’t like it. But I’m not a guy with bad blood. I explained my view to Warner Bros. before they took the decision and afterward. There was some tension; there was some business negotiation. At the end of the day, I think we got a good deal.

Universal has not come around like that. They originally made a 17-day window deal with AMC. And now, after Cinemark stepped in, it’s 17-31 days, depending on box office, but still pretty short. Is that reasonable to you? You’ve not yet made a deal with Universal.

Our relationships with the studios go back over 90 years. It’s a partnership. Studios need cinemas and cinemas need studios. We accept windows cannot be as long as they were in [the] past. I don’t think any studio opposes the view that theatrical exclusivity is a must, that it’s the best way to maximize income from movies. I think this [WB] deal is setting a tone, which is so important for the industry. I hope in the coming weeks we’re able to move forward with Paramount, Sony, Disney and, of course, with Universal.

You just reported your first-ever annual loss — $2.25 billion, after a $700 million profit in 2019. You’ve had a cash crunch and had to raise $450 million in the fall to stay afloat. Is the financial situation for Regal and Cineworld dire?

Of course, for much of 2020 we were bleeding money. But we have also been raising a lot of money. We just raised $200 million more [through a convertible bond]. We have enough liquidity for the reopening and will be cash-flow positive very soon after.

And if the reopening doesn’t pan out?

We have good liquidity even until the end of the year. I’m not worried, but I’m cautious. I’m preparing ourselves for a bad situation. But I’m sure this time it will be good.

Do you have to close theaters to get there? AMC has permanently shut about 10 percent of its theaters in the U.S. alone.

We’ve closed 20 theaters [out of about 750] across all our territories. About 17 of them are in the U.S. All of them were underperforming, and we could reach agreements with landlords where we could leave early. We didn’t lose any of our flagships. And we’re going to open five new theaters. Each of these new cinemas will probably do the business of three old cinemas.

How have you felt about the last year generally? Has how it unfolded surprised you?

It was really disappointing. I was ready to bet that everything would be back in June, latest July. If someone would have told me that it would be a year and still theaters are closed, I would think he’s crazy.

And it doesn’t make you more pessimistic now?

The first quarter has been very frustrating. On the other hand, we’re now counting vaccinations instead of test results. I’m sure Europe will move forward quickly once they solve this issue. In July the theatrical business will be back there. Not at 2019 levels. But completely different from where it stands now. We’re also now standing in a situation with “Godzilla vs. Kong” as the first release [next week] in the United States. In May I think we can be in full force in the U.S.

That’s a bold prediction — what data do you see that supports this?

I think you just need to look at Asia. In China and Japan [where covid cases have subsided and theaters have reopened] they’re breaking records — not covid records but all-time records. It’s amazing to think a new Chinese-language movie like “Detective Chinatown 3” is the biggest opening ever in the history of the industry in one territory — bigger even than “Avengers.” It showed the promise of entertainment. I cannot count how many people have asked me when the new “Top Gun” will come out, when “Matrix” will come out.

Of course, there are people who say they’ll come out at the beginning for the novelty and then go back to watching Netflix movies at home.

The human being’s nature is not to stay home seven days a week. It’s to go out at least once or twice a week, whether it’s to a park or a restaurant or a cinema. There’s nothing to compare laughing together, crying together, being frightened together. A boy dating a girl for the first time does not want to sit in the living room with his parents.

There has been a long history of disruption to movie theaters that was supposed to kill them but didn’t — the TV, the VCR, cable, various wars. People say the double whammy of a pandemic and streaming are different, though. What do you think?

It always happens in our industry. It’s 120 years old, and there are so many times someone says, “This will be the end of cinema,” and then it survives. Cinema will live forever.