Mark O’Meara has endured blizzards, hurricanes and economic recessions. Even in three feet of snow, he’s managed to keep the lights on at University Mall and Cinema Arts, the two movie theaters he owns in Fairfax, Va. But for the first time in 29 years, he had to close his doors as the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep through the country — and his own backyard.
“It’s horrible,” O’Meara said. “All my life, I’ve had all kinds of tragedies, but I’ve never had a problem missing a meal or sleeping. This has been bugging me. I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night. As a 67-year-old, you’re supposed to get sleep, but I haven’t been able to.”
O’Meara wasn’t just distressed about having to shutter his multiplexes. He was uneasy about how his employees, most of whom are under 30, would stay afloat without a steady paycheck. Essentially all cinemas in the U.S. were forced to close amid the global heath crisis, causing an estimated 150,000 workers to be furloughed or let go entirely.
“I have a lot of kids working here that make a living on a shoestring, and I can’t pay that well,” O’Meara told Variety last week, two days before his theaters were forced to close. “They can’t afford to lose more than one or two shifts a week, and I don’t know what to do.”
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Since he couldn’t sell movie tickets, O’Meara took inspiration from a nearby McDonald’s that was offering only takeout. Last Wednesday, he started to sell “curbside concessions,” hawking large tubs of popcorn for $3.
“We have a parking lot the width of a sidewalk and nobody else is open, so there’s plenty of space,” he said. “I’ll do what I can to get these kids paid.”
On his first afternoon in business, O’Meara sold $25 worth of popcorn in 45 minutes. He is now averaging $300 to $400 a day in concession sales.
O’Meara refers to University Mall, a three-screen, second-run theater, as “old school” because they can’t sell movie tickets online. But Cinema Arts, his slightly larger venue that houses mostly indie fare, has collected a couple thousand dollars in online gift cards, he estimates. Facebook has been their main source of advertising to get the word out in the community.
“Everyone is home, and nobody has anything to do except check Facebook,” he said. “We’ve gotten tons of likes and comments and they’re all telling people, so it’s spreading.”
The concession stand sales might not be enough for O’Meara to cover overhead costs, but he’s already seen the impact it’s had on his staffers.
“Someone got her paycheck,” O’Meara recalled last Wednesday, the afternoon his theaters shuttered. “I was watching her. She took out her calculator and she said, ‘Yes, I can pay the rent.’ That’s what it’s all about.”
It’s not just his employees who have to worry about paying the bills. There’s massive uncertainty over when theaters across the country might be able to reopen, and O’Meara is concerned about making ends meet.
“My landlord gets it,” O’Meara said. “There are things going on beyond our control, and we need to figure out what to do. There are policies for pandemics, but who the hell would have bought one? We didn’t.”
He added, “I’m going to see what bills I can pay. I don’t have extra cash in the bank, so it’ll be interesting.”
The entire movie business — from mom-and-pop venues to larger chains like AMC, Regal and Cinemark — is feeling the pressure and could struggle if “stay at home” measures extend longer than expected. O’Meara operates with a “glass half-full” mentality and says his place as “a cornerstone of the community” is advantageous.
“All of us little people, being more a part of the community, we’re better suited to rally,” O’Meara said. “The larger chains get a lot more customers, but I get to know my audience well.”
After sending out a newsletter to inform patrons his theaters would be indefinitely closed, many of them reached out via email to ask how they could help keep him in business.
“I had tears in my eyes when I read those,” he said. “Customers say, ‘You don’t understand how much this place means to me.'”
In recent weeks, studios have pulled major movies from release since there isn’t anywhere to show them. Only two films so far — Universal’s “Trolls World Tour” and Paramount’s “The Lovebirds” — have opted to skip theatrical releases entirely and instead launch straight on home entertainment. Some are wondering if the new model, breaking the traditional 90-day window, will change the way the industry operates in the long term. But O’Meara isn’t convinced it’ll hold when normal life resumes.
“I think they’ll figure out real quick they won’t make as much money,” he said. “They need the theatrical window to build word of mouth. I always thought theaters were the best advertising tool.”
For now, there’s a larger threat that looms as moviegoers are staying home with nothing to do — streaming services.
“The other day, a lady just took her popcorn and said, ‘We’re going to watch Netflix.’ I said, ‘Why did you tell me that?,'” O’Meara joked with resignation. “It makes perfect sense with kids home, but my worry is they’re going to get in the habit of doing that. But I don’t think they will.”