The spreading coronavirus outbreak is leading many people to avoid  activities that require them to gather together in large groups. That's not great news for movie theaters, and it puts two major March releases -- Disney's (DIS 1.55%) "Mulan" and ViacomCBS's (NASDAQ: VIAC) "A Quiet Place Part II" at risk to seriously underperform at the box office.

The studios have stuck to their original U.S. release dates for the films despite concerns about how COVID-19 precautions might impact ticket sales. That's somewhat surprising given that one major movie that had had a planned release date in April-- the James Bond film "No Time to Die" -- has already been postponed to Thanksgiving.

Two women in a crowded movie theater.

Coronavirus fears may have some people skipping going to the movies. Image source: Getty Images.

Movie theater sources told that they expect lower turnout for movies in the short term. That could have a major impact on both of these movies, although Disney's film may take less of a hit because it's aimed at least somewhat at children, and movies for kids tend to have longer theatrical runs.

Disney has, however, indefinitely postponed the release of "Mulan" in China specifically -- out of necessity, as nearly all of that country's 70,000 or so theaters have been closed in response to the coronavirus epidemic.
While theaters in the U.S. and Canada remain open, Disney and ViacomCBS are taking a financial risk in releasing their movies at a time when their target audiences may prefer to remain hunkered down at home. Both media giants may be willing to gamble because they calculate that, with the marketing money they've already spent to promote the films, it's now too late to delay them. The box office numbers may soon reveal whether their decisions were the right ones.