Multiplex operators see better days ahead. AMC Entertainment Holdings (NYSE:AMC) dreams about a future in which it can fire up its projectors again, and patrons will come rushing back to the creature comforts of big-screen entertainment. But what if AMC threw a screening party and nobody came? What if instead of running to the corner multiplex after the shelter-in-place phase of the pandemic passes, movie buffs decide that they would rather just stay home? 

Cabin fever morphing into cabin theater could be a thing. In a Variety exclusive on Wednesday, a survey by sports and events analytics firm Performance Research, in partnership with Full Circle Research, asked participants if they would rather see a first-run feature film at a movie theater or as a digital rental at home. A jaw-dropping 70% of those surveyed said that they would prefer to watch the new theatrical release at home. And it's even worse than you think. 

Fully reclined seats at an AMC theater.

Image source: AMC Entertainment.

Screen test

We're talking about a limited sample size of roughly 1,000 participants, so no survey is ironclad. However, having 7 of 10 people surveyed prefer to stay in when a new film comes out, instead of making it more of an event at a movie theater, has to send shivers down the spines of AMC and its smaller rivals. 

The survey is even more problematic because there were three choices available on that particular question. Beyond the 70% that would prefer a new studio release as a digital rental from home, another 17% of those asked said they were not sure which platform they preferred. Only 13% of the participants felt that they would be more likely to watch a brand-new film at a local move theater. 

Let that sink in for a celluloid minute: A new movie comes out. The choice comes down to a multiplex or a living room, and AMC's industry comes in third? Just one in eight survey participants were sure that they would prefer the stadium seating, popcorn tubs, and crowd experience of the multiplex. In short, AMC is doomed.

One can argue that a mid-May survey isn't going to be fair. Folks are apprehensive about going out, and they may avoid a movie theater more out of contamination fears than negative thoughts about overpriced concessions, sticky floors, and noisy patrons. I would also throw in the high price of going to the movies as a potential deal breaker, but these same-day digital releases are setting folks back $20 for a rental. 

If you're AMC, you're not just worried about how consumers feel. What if studios start coming to the same conclusion? AMC has already come to blows with Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCS.A) Universal Studios last month over comments that the studio's chief made after the initial success of Trolls World Tour in April. The film took in $95 million in the first three weeks as a premium, leading the head of Comcast's NBCUniversal to say that the studio will continue to consider releasing new movies in both formats. AMC responded by threatening to stop screening Universal movies at its roughly 1,000 theaters worldwide if Comcast didn't change its position. 

Studios have turned to these high-priced digital rentals as a way to cope with pandemic-shuttered movie theaters, especially after investing in promoting the releases. Trolls World Tour also had a toy licensing deal tied to getting it out in front of audiences. However, if other films are faring as well as Comcast has here, this is a genie that can't be put back into the bottle. 

AMC may not mind at first. Social distancing will likely result in fewer available seats for screenings, and it will be months before we get a steady flow of major new releases. But as folks grow more comfortable with home theater screenings, the more detached they will become from the throwback cinema experience. It will be just the latest bricks-and-mortar industry to be replaced by an experience that can be recreated more conveniently at home. 

The scary thing if you're AMC, one of its hammered shareholders, or any multiplex fan is that things aren't going to get better, and I'm not talking about the inevitable recession that will dry up consumer spending. The 87% share of surveyed people who didn't prefer the movie theater experience will only inch higher from here. AMC may have done a serviceable job during the shutdown of shaving overhead and raising liquidity, but the future that it's saving up for isn't there anymore.