By Tyler Aquilina
August 13, 2020 at 05:13 PM EDT
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Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The time has come: After numerous delays and much anticipation, one of 2020's most eagerly awaited films will finally hit the big screen this weekend. We're speaking, of course, of The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run.

Thanks at least somewhat to that beloved sponge, the domestic box office, which includes the U.S. and Canada, is poised for a resurgence in the coming weeks, however modest. Paramount will release Sponge on the Run in Canadian theaters on Friday, marking the first major studio release in North American multiplexes since March. The Russell Crowe thriller Unhinged will open the same day, and they'll shortly be followed by Christopher Nolan's long-awaited Tenet, which will hit screens in Canada and a slew of other countries Aug. 27, ahead of its scheduled U.S. debut on Sept. 3.

Likely in no small part because of Tenet, American theaters are also starting to come back to life. AMC will reopen more than 100 locations Aug. 20, and Regal plans to do so the next day. Cinemark has already opened more than 50 theaters across the country, with more to follow over the next few weeks. All three chains have instituted new health and safety measures in response to the pandemic, including face mask requirements, reduced audience capacities, and auditorium sanitization between showtimes. (AMC is also offering 15-cent tickets on its first day of reopening, a whimsical touch amid an ominous landscape.)

Meanwhile, analytics firm Comscore will resume reporting box office numbers this weekend after a lengthy hiatus. It all amounts to the beginning of a return to something like normalcy, even if the box office won't be anywhere near "normal" levels for quite a while.

"It feels like what could be described as a slow relaunch of movie theaters, with some titles that are brand new," says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior box office analyst at Comscore. "It is going to take some time to get ramped fully back up. To expect this burst of a huge opening weekend with reduced capacity would be misguided. That being said, maybe movies will have legs again. Maybe long-term playability is really where it's at right now."

Just how long remains extremely uncertain. By all current measures, the U.S. is nowhere close to containing the coronavirus, with the country still averaging more than 50,000 new cases per day according to The New York Times. (Canada, on the other hand, has flattened its curve quite successfully, with just under 121,000 confirmed cases compared to the U.S.'s 5.2 million.) No matter how eager viewers may be to return to movie theaters, will any health measures be enough to convince them? More importantly, will they be enough to prevent infection?

While health experts say movie theaters are less risky environments than, say, bars or gyms, remaining in any indoor space, with other people, for an extended period of time poses a significant risk of catching the virus. "We’re seeing upticks in numbers of cases because things have been reopening, people have been going out," Dr. Anne W. Rimoin, a professor of epidemiology at UCLA, previously told EW. "Just because things are opening up, doesn’t mean that it’s safe... As an epidemiologist, I would prefer a drive-in."

About half of all cinemas around the world are currently open, according to Comscore data. While most are showing previously released titles (no. 1 at the Chinese box office last weekend: 1917), theaters are doing steady business in markets where new films are playing. The South Korean box office totaled $10.6 million last weekend, according to Box Office Mojo — more than its lowest weekend in 2019 — bolstered by the newly released action film Deliver Us From Evil. Tenet will serve as the first true bellwether for the business Hollywood tentpole movies can do in this climate, but it's evident that the appetite for the theatrical experience is as strong as ever.

"This all depends on the health and safety of patrons," Dergarabedian notes. "But I think the strength of the drive-in performance over the past few months, despite the fact that there's so much content available on streaming, proves that people are hungry and ready to go see big-screen movies."

For the latest information on coronavirus (COVID-19), including how to protect yourself and what to do if you think you are sick, please visit coronavirus.gov.

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