As a theater chain whose business model relies on serving food and drinks during movies, the Studio Movie Grill might be facing even more challenges than the rest of the exhibition industry.
But Dallas-based Studio Movie Grill is still offering snacks and meals in both the theater auditoriums and lounge areas at the chain’s nine locations that are currently open. With the “grill” concept at the forefront of their brand, the chain is taking precautions to make sure customers can continue to drink and dine, and finding new revenue streams with private theater rentals.
Studio Movie Grill began reopening locations in Georgia, Florida and Texas in late June at 50% capacity — all states that saw surges in coronavirus cases over the summer. Staff are required to undergo a health check prior to starting their shift and wear face masks and other protective gear.
“Bar stools are completely removed for now, in the area directly at the bar to ensure social distancing,” explained marketing chief Tonya Mangels. “We have very large spacious lounges with significant booth seating and bar seating. The lounge booth areas are socially distanced with every other booth ‘closed’ right now with health and safety signage indicating as such.”
Moviegoers can still order an Alright, Alright, Alright Old Fashioned featuring Matthew McConaughey’s Wild Turkey Longbranch Bourbon — but they’re asked to wear masks when they’re not sipping cocktails or munching on snacks in the theater, and also wear them in restrooms and lobbies.
With the COVID-19 pandemic in its fifth month, the North American moviegoing business as a whole is operating at less than 20% capacity.
The three biggest chains — AMC, Regal and Cinemark with nearly 1,500 locations — have announced they will reopen during mid to late August. Theaters in Los Angeles, New York and many other locations have not yet been given an approved reopening date by their health departments.
Smaller chains are facing numerous challenges, from the recent Universal VOD announcement to customers reluctant to return to movie theaters while COVID-19 numbers are still high, though starting to decline in some areas.
Seven of Studio Movie Grill’s shuttered locations are in California, where Governor Gavin Newsom hasn’t said anything about lifting the ban on movie theaters opening.
Founder and CEO Brian Schultz told Variety that patrons in the Golden State are well aware of the risks: “Our California guests remain the most vocal about the safety of returning to Studio Movie with our protocols,” he added.
But Schultz is optimistic that business is rebounding, and he said sales are increasing 3% to 5% each week. The chain has seen solid returns from its offer to rent out auditoriums — which can accommodate several dozen patrons at once — for $200.
“Just like our guests, we have been excited to return to the movies safely,” he added. “Our option to rent out private auditoriums has given our guests the chance to return to movies on the big screen in a way that is comfortable to them.”
Schultz said the private bookings have been “wildly successful.”
Several Studio Movie Grill filmgoers told Variety the staff was attentive in following safety protocols. Olivia Zehmer, of Georgia-based fire safety equipment concern Twelve and Associates, said she was pleased about how a recent company outing had turned out with close to 40 employees and family members attending.
“I’m the company’s organizer of these event and we usually would go to a Braves game or a bowling alley, but that wasn’t going to be feasible,” she said. “We chose ‘Ready Player One’ as something that families could watch. People are itching to come out and for a lot of us, it was the first time we had been to an event since the pandemic started.”
Cody and Teresa Dolan said that they decided to hold a birthday party for their 12-year-old daughter at the the Houston Studio Movie Grill and screen “Spider Man: Far From Home.”
“We have to be super-careful because our daughter’s health and the staff was very conscious of following the health protocols with masks, gloves and social distancing,” he said. “Everyone had a grand time. The kids were so grateful to see their friends, and the adults were happy to get out of the house.”
The Dolans were so pleased that they organized a second outing for their daughter, four of her friends and four teachers.
Mangels said Dave Franco’s horror movie “Rental” was the top performer last week. The IFC release is also available on-demand.
“The new content from smaller distributors continues to get audiences in at pre-pandemic levels and clearly indicated demand is there when we have new content,” she added. “This week we look forward to the opening of ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ starring Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson, and ‘Black Water Abyss.'”
Currently, Studio Movie Grill has six theaters open in Texas and it’s looking to reopen soon at outlets in Arlington and Plano along with a site in Duluth, Ga.
Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst with Comscore, says the chain’s focus on providing a premium experience helps distinguish it from other theaters.
“Studio Movie Grill is nimble, innovative and passionate about movies and the moviegoing experience and during COVID-19, these are particularly relevant attributes,” he said.
Dergarabedian says he thinks the future of moviegoing in theaters that create a curated environment with a “high-end feel,” and in a time when more and more titles are premiering at home, that’s the kind of experience Studio Movie Grill is hoping will continue to draw moviegoers.