What’s the plan for local movie theaters as they broach the COVID-19 nightmare?

Edwin Hooper Q8m8clkryeo Unsplash

Photo by Edwin Hooper

You’ve been hearing about it for years now: the rise of streaming movies from your home. It wasn’t necessarily threatening the moviegoing experience soon…that is until 2021. The pandemic also draws parallels to our use of technology taking over our lives. If you didn’t already know we were living through our phones and computers…now you do. Few people were heading out to the theaters (unless it was a superhero flick) in the prior seasons, it’s quick to assume streaming services are threatening to completely run the movie theater industry out of business. But is this rumor plausible? Or is it simply overgeneralized?

Outside of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984, every big-budget theater release this year (post-March) was pushed to 2021 and beyond (Tenet itself was delayed multiple times because of COVID-19). But with studios continuing to delay these pictures instead of bringing them straight to streaming (besides Disney’s Mulan), there is hope that distributors are continuing to rely on the model we’ve always known. More than anything, it seems like a waiting game, with a lot of praying that things will calm down.

Mulan and Pixar’s Soul are trialing the streaming service game, while Borat 2, The Trial of Chicago 7, Da 5 Bloods, among others, also found new distribution to compete at next year’s Academy Awards. They have also found an audience. Paramount sold Chicago 7 to Netflix, making money on the deal, but lost an awards contender and original picture. The studio has been hurt with the recent changes in moviegoing taste (people no longer simply show up for movie stars), and this year’s debacle certainly makes matters worse.

Meanwhile, theaters around the area are struggling to make ends meet with very little confidence from consumers and little product to bring them in.

“It’s kind of in a big holding pattern,” Brian Mossman, Vice President of Fine Arts Theatres says. “A lot of films have been pulled until at least 2021, maybe even longer than that. At best, I foresee some of them making it through the holidays. Could be just Thanksgiving, could be Christmas. And then there’s probably going to be major shutdowns around the country. People can’t sustain it. Theaters now are paying their customers to come and watch movies.”

Once the vaccine gets around and the infection rate starts to down, that might change. Mossman thinks a return to normal might not come until the summer at the earliest, possibly even November.

Liberty Hall (independently owned in Lawrence), has gone down to being open on the weekends. And with the recent shutdown of Regal, Liberty is the only theater open in that area. Due to their event venue status (Liberty is a multi-use space), they are gaining more resource allocation. And marketing director Racheal Major says there is plenty of room to still social distance.

“We give people a sticker so we can go sanitize the area they sit in,” Major says. “Our main theater has 700 seats, so there is plenty of room for distancing.

“Studios have been generous, giving us better titles with better rates for the guarantees. We’ve been playing stuff like Guardians of the Galaxy, Toy Story, and the Star Wars films.”

To help with the tough climate, these local establishments have not been sitting back and hoping for the best. B&B Theatres is a member of the international CinemaSafe initiative, which has developed and implemented several safety protocols for cinema operators during this time. There has not yet been a reported case of COVID-19 contract-traced to a theater anywhere on the planet, and CinemaSafe procedures are a huge reason.

While B&B is committed to keeping on keeping on, Liberty Hall is relying on private screenings and parties to help out financially. Major stated that events are hard to come by during this time and they’re having to subsidize with concessions (for which they have implemented curbside pickup and online ordering).

“Revenues are definitely down,” Major says. “Studios are having a hard time too, not having the revenue they were hoping for with Tenet.”

Liberty has mainly been sticking to showing lesser-known independent releases, along with some older classics, but with the rising concern of major chains closing their doors (Regal is closed and AMC rumors have floated for months), medium-sized companies and independent theaters could find their time to flourish.

“I can’t comment on the current status or financial position of those chains and won’t speculate, but we have been approached with lots of opportunities for expansion during this time,” says Paul Farnsworth, B&B’s Director of Public Relations. “Many of these opportunities are uniquely packaged for this type of pandemic situation, replete with terms that would otherwise be unachievable were the industry not in such current turmoil.”

AMC or Regal might take the opportunity to vacate some properties that will potentially appeal to smaller operators. But right now, B&B is focused on the present—offering guests the best experience possible and securing federal and state relief.

Mossman doesn’t see a resurgence of independent theaters in the foreseeable future, at least as far as opening new spaces is concerned.

“With what Screenland [Armour] does and what we do, there are not a lot of buildings available for independent operators,” Mossman says. “With the uncertainty of the movie business, nobody’s going to build a small six-plex to play independent movies.”

And with a lot of places only showing movies on the weekends right now, all the more reason streaming services will become a valid replacement in the eyes of many consumers. Farnsworth doesn’t buy the fact that streaming has overpowered the theatrical experience just yet, though.

“Time has proven that the two models can coexist peacefully, and studies show that the folks who consume the most content at home are the same people who visit their theatres with the greatest frequency,” Farnsworth says.

“Would I want to watch Wonder Woman 1984 for the first time on my 60-inch TV with my soundbar or on a 60-foot screen with immersive digital surround? The movie house is an experience; streaming is simply entertainment (or, in many cases, background noise or diversion).”

It was just recently announced that Wonder Woman 1984 will release on Christmas Day on HBO Max AND in theaters. Certainly, who you’re watching the film with will determine some consumers’ choice as to how they’ll watch it. Mulan cost $29.99 on top of the Disney Plus subscription, but this time around Wonder Woman has no additional cost.

“Obviously, the pro to streaming is that the more people stay home, the better,” Major says. “In the future, I hope we can go see a movie on the big screen. There’s a quality about it that you can’t get at home: The smell of the popcorn and candy, the previews, sitting in your seat. It’s a magical, romantic thing that people will start to appreciate more after everything is over.”

But right now, it’s going to take a lot of from the world for people to feel safe when they go out from here on out. Thankfully, Farnsworth is confident that movie theaters are indeed some of the safest places in the world during the pandemic.

“I’ve got binders full of white page studies conducted by world-renowned doctors and epidemiologists explaining why cinemas are, in many ways, safer than schools, houses of worship, and grocery stores during this health situation,” Farnsworth says. “But scientific chatter only goes so far, and we realize there may be an emotional resistance…maybe even a fear of resuming many activities that were so beloved pre-pandemic.”

With plenty of positive reception from current guests of the theater, the hope is that their word-of-mouth will spread far and wide. B&B guests have been sharing their observations and satisfaction with the company on social media.

“They are finding an experience that allows them to escape the concerns and anxieties and frustrations of 2020 and immerse themselves in the magic of the movies for a couple of hours,” Farnsworth says. “That doesn’t happen in quite the same way on a couch in front of a television.”

“People are just very, very cautious to be in a room for two hours,” Mossman says. “I think the way the moviegoing experience will come back will be the downtick of the infection, to a big degree. The news scares you to even go out. Once the vaccine is administered and we start seeing a big improvement, then people might come back. But it’s going to be a long haul. It could be 2021, it could be 2022. There is no way of knowing.”

Mossman’s main struggle right now is low attendance. The Fine Arts Theatre plays a lot of art films and many of them are not performing up to the theater’s usual standard. He is under the belief that having a long strain of product is necessary during a time like this. Smaller studios are having the chance to release stuff to theaters they wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to have a relationship with.

“I think there are more of the independent art films available because there are fewer and fewer screens that would have played those films, versus the big boys that have thousands of screens across the country,” Mossman says.

With smaller theaters getting a nice quantity of product to play, that’s not really the concern for everybody during this time. It’s more of getting the confidence back in the consumer to see stuff and sit in the same room with other people for an extended period of time.

Unfortunately, for Liberty Hall, they can’t show ‘film’ screenings for the ‘cinephile’ niche of consumers to help garner that audience. Meaning older 35mm films are out of the picture—they can only show digital.

“Studios are coming up to promote stuff for second-run theaters,” Major says. “We [Liberty Hall] are a first-run theater, but also a second-run.”

As for upcoming events for local theaters, there are plenty of opportunities to support the moviegoing experience.

Through mid-December, B&B Theatres is offering private theater rentals starting at $150. It provides access to a large list of content and accommodation for up to 25 guests. They have already booked hundreds of rentals over the last several weeks, and they are proving most successful for B&B and their participating guests. Beyond that, they are also offering their STOCKING STUFFER Gift Card promotion which, in a nutshell, packages in a free theater rental option for guests that purchase $250 in gift cards.  

“Most folks are getting 10 cards with $25 apiece to use as gifts or stocking stuffers and then planning the free theater rental as a holiday party,” Farnsworth says.

Liberty Hall has its annual charity event, The Festival of Trees, quickly approaching. It has been a premier Lawrence holiday event for over 30 years where families, businesses, and clubs donate themed Christmas trees and holiday wreaths displayed for the community to enjoy throughout the week. The gala and auction cap off the festivities—including a night of food, drinks, and the giving spirit as they help raise money and awareness for kids in need.

“The community is pretty supportive, but we are as a whole pretty weak during this time,” Major says. “Supporting other businesses downtown is definitely something we are doing right now.”

Fine Arts Theatres’ Glenwood location has moved their annual Kansas International Film Festival into 2021. But Mossman has hope that it will come sooner than later, believing that there are enough people that value the theatrical experience to not let it end.

“I always tell my customers: Wouldn’t it be really sad if down the road we’d say, ‘Do you remember going to movie theaters?” Mossman says. “‘Do you remember going to drive-ins?’ I think there are still people that want to see it with that audience participation, seeing it with a crowd, with all the emotions, the laughter. I still think that that’s going to be hard to beat.”

Categories: Movies