It was a historic but ultimately inconsequential return to business for the country's multiplex operators. AMC Entertainment Holdings (NYSE:AMC), Cinemark Holdings (NYSE:CNK), and Cineworld Group's (LSE:CINE) (OTC:CNWGY) Regal Entertainment Group opened a significant number of their movie theaters over the weekend. We didn't exactly show up.

Even though theaters had been shuttered for more than five months, the country didn't go flocking to the cinema for a taste of normalcy. The only notable new release was Unhinged, put out by new indie distributor Solstice Studios with a slate of modestly budgeted action thrillers. The Russell Crowe road-rage revenge flick took in $4.1 million in domestic ticket sales over the weekend.

The next nine highest grossing films consisted largely of classic re-releases and even more obscure indie releases looking to cash in on a plethora of available screens. They took in less than $2.4 million combined.  A year earlier, over the same weekend, the country's theaters sold $87.9 million in movie tickets.

A pair of young moviegoers asleep at the multiplex.

Image source: Getty Images.

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Things will get better, and how can they not after a roughly 92% year-over-year decline in box office receipts? But this isn't going to be an easy process for an industry that was already smarting heading into the COVID-19 crisis. 

It's not just a lack of content keeping folks away. Consumers still aren't persuaded that it's safe to head into an indoor theater for a couple of hours of old-school cinema. AMC, Cinemark, and Cineworld's Regal have done their part. They are capping the number of available seats in order to keep guests at least six feet apart. They have ramped up their sanitation and safety standards. You have to keep your face coverings on (even once seated and watching the movie) unless you're actively eating or drinking your concession stand purchases. It's diluting an experience that already felt diluted to moviegoers before the pandemic. 

Theaters know that they face an uphill battle. They are rolling back prices on concessions, even if that means a major blow to their primary profit center. Exhibitors also tried to woo audiences with discounted tickets. AMC turned heads by offering tickets for just $0.15 on a single day when it reopened 100 of its theaters on Aug. 20. It wasn't enough.

It didn't help that just a handful of theaters are open, and that not all of their multiplex screens are being put to use right away. It also doesn't help that some of the larger states in the country, including California, New York, and New Jersey, still haven't given movie theater chains the green light to reopen. This doesn't mean that folks aren't watching movies in those states. In fact, the three highest-grossing theaters for Unhinged were drive-ins in California. 

This is going to be a long recovery process. Unhinged is probably not the canary you want in this coal mine. The real test will start this weekend when Bill and Ted Face the Music and Marvel's The New Mutants lead the slate of premieres. We then get to the real star of the summer when Tenet opens a week later.

A lot is at stake as we weigh the viability of the movie theater industry and studios ponder a shift to premium video on demand if consumers don't show up to the multiplex. It's not just the weekend's top draw that is Unhinged right now. With consumer trends shifting quickly in the pandemic, AMC, Cinemark, and Cineworld are not safe stocks right now. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.