Leading move theater operator AMC Entertainment (NYSE:AMC) drew a line in the sand when it announced plans to have most of its major multiplexes open by July 15, but now the industry is moving the sandbox. Christopher Nolan's time-bending Tenet was supposed to be put out by AT&T's (NYSE:T) Warner Bros. on July 17. Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Mulan live-action reboot would follow a week later after pivoting from its original late March arrival.

However, with AT&T's movie arm bumping Tenet to July 31 and then pushing out that date Aug. 12 on Thursday -- and Disney's Mulan getting rescheduled on Friday to an Aug. 21 release date -- can AMC realistically reopen next month? Audiences were going to be a hard draw even with top-notch content, and now we're lacking the first wave of summer blockbusters to give it any kind of fighting chance to succeed. 

Two people asleep in an otherwise empty movie theater.

Image source: Getty Images.

Let's all go to the lobby

A lack of content won't be the only thing weighing on AMC Entertainment if and when it opens in mid-July. Social distancing measures will restrict the number of tickets it can sell per screening. There's also AMC's flip-flop on a controversial face-covering requirement. AMC had initially said that it wouldn't require seated guests to wear masks, but after a social media uproar, it decided to make it mandatory. Opening in a little more than two weeks would give it time to work out the kinks with older movies and eclectic programming before the big flicks come, but what even Nolan and a Disney princess isn't enough to save the day?

A traditional night at the movies is going to be a hard sell. A third-party survey last month showed that 70% of consumers would prefer to see a new release from the comfort of home. Just 13% of those surveyed chose to watch a new film at the local movie theater with the balance undecided. You know you're facing an uphill battle when just one of out every eight potential movie buff wants your experience. 

How will AMC and its smaller rivals survive when folks don't want your product and the barriers to profitability are growing larger? We've already covered the capacity limitations of each screening, but what do you think face coverings will do for concession sales? Movie studios make the lion's share of ticket sales on new releases, and it's the high-margin sodas and snacks where exhibitors make their living. Fewer available seats were already going to translate into fewer tub-sized soft drinks, but won't the new rules also eat into in-seat snacking habits? 

Tenet and Mulan -- the five-letter words that were supposed to save AMC in July -- probably won't save August, either. This is going to be a lost summer for the industry, but the future isn't much brighter than a dimming projector. AMC is fighting against the migration of home-based digital video consumption. It's also fighting against one of Hollywood's leading studios. AMC is fighting against time and gravity, too. It's not well-equipped to win any of these battles, so investors hoping to ride it out -- speculating on low-priced AMC shares as if it's a penny stock -- better be smart enough to duck out before the rest of the market realizes this won't have a happy Hollywood ending.