Since the early 20th century, movies have been a constant, providing escape and entertainment for millions around the globe. Moviegoers have flocked to theaters to watch films on the silver screen with little interruption, ever since the first theater in the United States dedicated to motion pictures was established in 1902 in Los Angeles.
Movie theaters were there for viewers as they witnessed the horrors of World War I and the Spanish Flu; as they lived it up during the heyday of the Roaring Twenties; as they struggled through the depths of the Great Depression and came out on the other side of World War II, entering a new, post-atomic age; as they rebuilt in a postwar economic boom; as they witnessed revolutionary spirit grip the U.S. and nations worldwide in the 1960s and 1970s; as they watched the Twin Towers fall on a fateful September morning; and as they saw the rise of new technologies that could spell the end for movie exhibition as we know it today.
Movie theaters have been a place of respite for some, a sacred space for cinematic art for others. Whether seeking pure spectacle, formal brilliance or something in between, moviegoers could find it at theaters, which have always been there to offer a dream factory, whether in celluloid or digital. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed an existential threat to the future of the big-screen theatrical experience.
Before the pandemic struck, the movie theater industry was riding high. Both the U.S. and global box offices had been breaking records in recent years. 2019 was the highest global box office haul with $42.5 billion in ticket receipts, up from the previous record of $41.7 billion, established in 2018. The U.S. box office actually declined in 2019 after a record year in 2018, in which the industry raked in $11.9 billion. However, it was still a healthy year with a total of $11.4 billion at the box office.
According to National Theater Owners Association (NATO) director of media and research Phil Contrino, the industry was well-positioned as it moved into 2020 and was performing well in the early months. “We were a robust industry. You’re talking $42 billion in global box office in 2019,” he said.
The high times came to a screeching halt in March 2020. Around the world, movie theaters are adapting — or closing — due to the pandemic.
Inside the Wynne Twin Cinema, work continues even during the midst of a global pandemic. On a Friday afternoon in July, there was a quiet bustle as young workers prepared the small, two-screen theater for a nighttime showing. Bringing in hot dogs, getting the popcorn ready, setting up the box office and wiping down the counters was all done with practiced efficiency by the masked employees.
Jill McDaniel, who has owned the theater with her husband Doug since 2009, watched over the operation with a steady eye as everyone moved along, giving a quiet order only when needed.
Since 2009, she has seen her share of ups and downs as a theater owner but nothing on the scale of the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down theaters across the country — some of which still have not reopened. McDaniel closed down Wynne Twin Cinema in mid-March, as the state of Arkansas released social distancing guidelines, and reopened on May 18 once the Phase I large-venue guidelines were released.
Under the Phase I guidelines in Arkansas, venues such as movie theaters were allowed to reopen for events up to 33 percent capacity with a 6-foot distance between people. When the state moved into Phase II, McDaniel was able to increase capacity to 50 percent of the 164 seats. To date, though, the biggest crowd she’s mustered is 48 people.
Part of the issue is the lack of product for theaters. The last major movies to receive significant theatrical releases were pushed out March 13. Since that time, there have been no new movies coming into theaters. That has forced the theaters that reopened to screen classic titles and/or titles that were in theaters recently.
Looking at the list of available movies at many open theaters, one would be forgiven for thinking that they had time-traveled back to the 1980s or 1990s. In recent weeks, Wynne Twin Cinema has shown classics like Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Grease, Jurassic Park and more, as well as more recent fare like The Greatest Showman.
Even though McDaniel had considered experimenting with classic titles before the pandemic, the loss of 2020’s film slate has been a blow for the business.
“2020 was looking really good for us. The movie choices — I can usually look at a year in advance, and I can tell you if I’m going to have a good year or not. I can predict it based upon my community, based upon my client. I was excited for the lineup for 2020. 2020 had really good movies. When I was looking at the lineup, I was like, ‘OK, we’re going to have a Top Gun.’ That’s long awaited. We’re going to have Halloween movies. We’re going to have Jungle Cruise, which should’ve been big, and it’s not coming now.”
With both public and private group showings, McDaniel said the crowds have remained mostly the same. Initially, she hoped for a “bleeding effect” — attracting individuals from surrounding communities, as Wynne is one of the only towns in Northeast Arkansas with an open theater. With some exceptions, the audience has remained largely confined to the local community.
“We’ve had the same people that have supported it,” McDaniel said. “We’ve seen a lot of the same faces.”
Other Arkansas theaters are embracing the classic movie route, including Matt Smith’s Arkansas Theater Group. Smith, who owns Riverdale 10 VIP Cinema in Little Rock, Cabot 8 VIP Cinema, Searcy 8 VIP Cinema, Hot Springs 8 VIP Cinema and Oaks 7 VIP Cinema in Batesville, said the classic film strategy is a way of getting Arkansans out of their homes after lengthy quarantines.
“We’ve had to get creative with our programming. We’ve had some movies from early 2020 but also some various family and adventure classics to give people something to do, to get out for $5,” he said. “People are coming out, and those people that come out are excited about it. Everybody has a list of their 10 favorite movies of their life, and those movies are something that either they always wanted to see of the big screen or want to see when they get a chance.”
Other theater owners have not been sold on the concept of classic titles. South of Wynne Twin Cinema, off Highway 1 in Forrest City, Broadway Cinema remains closed for the time being. Arkansas state Rep. Steve Hollowell, who owns the theater, said that he had considered the possibility of reopening and showing classic titles but ultimately decided against it.
“We didn’t think it would work that well. It might have worked a little bit when we reopened. Most people can rent those or own those movies. They’re pretty much available,” he said.
Hollowell is hoping to reopen soon once new movies begin being released. For now, movie studios are eyeing early September as the earliest return to theaters. Inception director Christopher Nolan has his newest film, Tenet, scheduled to open on Sept. 3, in the U.S. However, future film releases still are in flux.
Where does that leave movie theaters, both big and small? For McDaniel, that future is unknown. “Honestly, when I look at it…until we can be full capacity, no film company is going to release a film. They’re waiting until theaters are all open full capacity because its box office is what makes or breaks them, and the success of a movie is based upon the opening weekend. And so, until they can do that, I know I’m not getting anything new,” she said.
Even the major theater players have been hit hard by the pandemic. Malco Theaters, based in Memphis, is the ninth-largest chain in the country and operates theaters in Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Jonesboro, Monticello, Rogers, Springdale and Van Buren. Karen Melton, Malco’s vice president and director of marketing, said the company’s business model is predicated on the release of new movies. Select Malco locations have received limited openings, but this has been done solely in preparation for the release of new movies.
“The response to legacy titles is limited, but our business model is based on the continued flow of new Hollywood movies,” Melton said. “We rely on the continued flow of new titles once the pipeline is full.”
As with many businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, theaters have seen their expenses continue to stack up, whether they are open or not. That’s why Mountain Home’s two theaters have not reopened yet. Mark McNew, general manager for Baxter Cinema and Sun Valley Cinema in Mountain Home, said his theaters are waiting to reopen in mid- to late August once new movies are closer on the horizon. Even though the theaters are closed, overhead costs are racking up. Utilities cannot be cut because the digital movie projectors require steady air conditioning to keep the batteries stable, and humid Arkansas weather could lead to mold if the buildings sat unattended.
“It’s always bad enough to spend four months with no income whatsoever, but to increase what’s going out and then not make enough to cover that is going into the hole even faster,” McNew said.
Both McDaniel and Smith acknowledged that they’re operating in the red at the moment. They both cited the need to provide a service for their communities, giving people a place to get out of the house for entertainment.
“There’s no doubt about it. I was losing a lot of money while I was forced to be closed for two months, and then I’ve been operating for 10 weeks with severe restrictions — at severely reduced capacity and with classic motion pictures — so I’m still losing money. But I’d rather be open, losing money,” Smith said. “Being open beats being closed.”
Ongoing financial issues have prompted theater owners to begin asking for increased assistance from the federal government. McDaniel has already received small loans, but because she has no full-time employees, the amount of assistance has been limited. She and her husband have even resorted to using their government stimulus checks to supplement the business’ coffers during this challenging time. Even the Malco chain, at its size, has had relative difficulty in obtaining aid.
“Our industry was not treated the same way as restaurants, hotels and churches when it came to offering financial grants. With 36 movie theatres, we received less assistance than restaurants did with only a few locations,” Melton said.
In response to these difficulties, NATO has launched the #SaveYourCinema initiative to lobby Congress to help theater owners with a new loan program targeted toward theater owners. The organization is lobbying for the Reviving the Economy Sustainably Towards a Recovery in Twenty-twenty (RESTART) Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Michael Bennett (D-Colorado) and Sen. Todd Young (R-Indiana), that would create a new loan program to provide funding for hard-hit businesses and industries. The program would allow businesses with fewer than 5,000 employees to borrow up to 45 percent of their 2019 gross receipts and up to $12 million in order to make payroll or use for rent, utilities or personal protective equipment costs.
In a letter addressed to congressional leaders and signed by eight other national associations, NATO executives said the RESTART Act loan program is essential in helping theaters survive the COVID-19 pandemic. Existing loan programs, they said, have left many businesses “stranded,” and the new program is designed to alleviate current financial pressures.
“We represent everybody from mom-and-pop one-screens in little towns to the biggest chains in the world, so we want something in terms of government aid that’s going to cover all of those. Our industry will not be the same without the whole gamut,” Contrino said.
Until the RESTART Act is passed, and more importantly until new movies begin being released again, theaters are stuck in a holding pattern. Theater owners are facing increasing uncertainty as to how they will remain open. For McDaniel, it’s changed how she is booking movies.
“I’m at the [mercy] of the decisions of everybody, you know. I’m thinking, ‘Am I open this week?’ When we first opened up, I booked for a month, classics for a month, and I haven’t done that since. I’m not booked past next Thursday because I don’t know. I’m just playing it week to week right now,” she said.
There will likely be at least one theatrical casualty of the pandemic: one of the Mountain Home theaters may close by the end of 2020. Despite reducing expenses, remaining closed for months on end — especially the summer when the business makes roughly 75 percent of its revenue — is taking its toll. McNew said that while he is remaining optimistic, the business won’t have enough resources to keep both theaters open with no incoming revenue.
Operating a movie theater requires a certain amount of chutzpah to make it — not unlike the movie industry itself. It’s a business that attracts dreamers and risk-takers, and none of these Arkansas theater owners are laying down without a fight despite the grim outlook. “This is the biggest challenge in its history. There’s no question about it. It’s an existential threat. It’s a resourceful industry. Our members are determined to get through it,” Contrino said.
In Wynne, McDaniel is continuing to innovate by introducing a new Musical Mondays program to capture new audiences. She is using social media to help spread the word about her programs and is working to rally the community around the theater.
“My biggest concern is continuing to be a safe, family-friendly entertainment source for our small town. And that’s been our biggest thing. Can we continue to provide that? It’s a guessing game,” she said.
Smith struck a defiant tone when asked about the long-term prospects of the theatrical model. Like a captain at the helm of his ship, Smith plans to damn the torpedoes, with a certainty that audiences will be making a full return, however gradually.
“This business has been around for over 100 years. People want to go to movies, and customers will return,” Smith said. “Until this pandemic, in the history of motion picture exhibition, movies have never been closed. They have always been there, always providing escape, always providing entertainment, always providing somewhere people can go to take their mind off their problems.”