With movie theaters across the country shuttering amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including AMC hinting at potential bankruptcy for its 1,000 theaters cross-country, theater owners and movie fanatics alike are wondering: what does the future of moviegoing look like?
Though Gov. Mike DeWine gave the green light for movie theaters to reopen on June 10, many independent Akron theaters are more cautious to open their front doors, and those that do might face tremendous financial struggles because of low turnout.
“We are doing our best to look at our patrons’ safety,” says Brittany Dobish, the artistic director at the Nightlight Cinema downtown. “It’s all uncertain. Nothing will be the same after this.”
Some theaters will survive — including, for now, the Nightlight, the Highland Square Cinema and the Linda Theatre — though many owners note there will be definitive changes and precautions.
And yes, for some, that includes the popcorn.
“There’s a lot of questions,” Dobish says. “Right now, we get to a reopening position, but how are we going to sustain reduced capacity and will concessions be a part of the Nightlight continuing forward? Our staff and board of trustees is not sure how it will work with popcorn and removing your mask on and off because those [masks] will be a requirement.”
Ted Bare, owner of the Highland Square Theatre and the Linda Theatre, promised his patrons can expect concessions at his single-screen theaters, though customers will have their temperature taken at the box office and social distancing will be enforced in the auditorium.
Bare’s primary concern isn’t the worry that people will be hesitant to return — he’s certain the ones phoning his office and inquiring about a reopening date are desperate to get to the box office — but instead the lack of product.
Highly anticipated films originally slated for a summer release, including installations to major blockbuster franchises such as Wonder Woman 1984, Top Gun: Maverick and James Bond: No Time To Die — pushed back release dates until December or later, leaving the well for new content available to theaters relatively dry.
“The state said we could open right now,” Bare says. “The problem is, we have no product.”
Bare says his theaters will reopen on July 10 upon release of Unhinged, starring Russell Crowe.
Meanwhile, some distribution companies didn’t wait until theaters reopened and have turned to a “premium video on demand” model, releasing films straight to consumers who pay to watch from home. When Universal released Trolls World Tour through direct-to-home streaming and the film broke records for at-home streaming, AMC Theaters severed ties with the production company, vowing to discontinue showing any Universal picture in the future.
Though the notion of production companies bypassing theaters worries Bare, Dobish says brick-and-mortar theaters have weathered the storm of streaming services before.
“The same rhetoric about streaming services has been coming at us for as long as we’ve been open and yet we’ve prevailed and people are still coming for the community experience,” she says.
In the interim of theaters opening their doors, local drive-ins are making a resurgence. With a one-month headstart on other movie theaters, the ability to creatively rework their spaces and provide peace of mind to theater-goers who can stay in their own car and avoid coronavirus transmission, drive-ins are experiencing high volume traffic.
“I really enjoyed being able to show my kids a classic movie on the big screen and watch safely as a family from our vehicle,” says 35-year-old Fairlawn resident Katie Koontz, who took her kids to see Jurassic Park at Magic City Drive-In in Barberton on June 19. “We continue to be cautious and thought this was a great way to catch a movie this summer.”
In addition to screening new releases and old films, many theaters are offering space for face-to-face events that were canceled, such as drive-in graduation ceremonies after high school seniors completed their year virtually. Magic City Drive-In offered to host commencement on its grounds for a $2,000 rental fee.
Drive-in theaters in Northeast Ohio are also expected to net a profit from an upcoming live concert by country legend Garth Brooks. The performance will be simulcast to drive-ins across the country for fans willing to pay the $100 per car entry fee.
As people begin to trickle out of their houses and movie release dates creep closer, theater owners must worry about how to keep those who attend a showing healthy when they’re not in the safety of their own cars.
The state of Ohio mandates that entertainment venues allowed to reopen must require employees to wear masks, ensure six feet of social distancing between customers in separate parties, specify hours for at-risk populations, establish a maximum capacity and sanitize high contact surfaces hourly, among other regulations.
Bare says he plans to have a touchless thermometer at the box offices of Highland Square Cinema and Linda Theater to ensure sick patrons do not enter, and all employees will wear masks and gloves at the concession stands.
As for the Nightlight, Dobish says a reopening date and safety precautions remain uncertain.
“To me, it’s not a matter of if people will come back, but when,” Bare said. “People are going to see the next Wonder Woman and James Bond. If theaters can survive this period, the demand will be there.”
The Nightlight typically brings in about $12,000 per month from ticket sales and concessions. Donations and grants offset those losses in March and April, and the theater received a Paycheck Protection Plan loan at the end of May.
While the theater remains closed, the Nightlight continues to seek ways to make up for that lost revenue, Dobish says. That includes a virtual screening room, where patrons can watch movies online while supporting the theater, as well as free virtual events — including a student film festival that garnered over 800 viewers, far more than could be seated in the physical theater, Dobish says.
Despite the economic downturn, Dobish and Bare agree: theaters aren’t going anywhere, even if they look different for a while.
“People want socialization and synergy,” Bare says. “They like laughing, crying and experiencing emotion in a theater with others. That’s the moviegoing experience.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated June 23 to clarify details about The Nightlight’s revenues.
The Nightlight Cinema
30 N. High St., Akron
The Linda Theatre
1745 Goodyear Blvd., Akron
Highland Square Theatre
826 W. Market St., Akron
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.