The Grand Theatre is one of those civic treasures that always seems to need saving.
It was built as an opera house in the tiny sawmill town of New London, Wis., in 1895. A century later, it was a run-down movie theater, desperate for a renovation.
The town’s voters agreed to tax themselves to restore it. But in 2010, the owner was still having a hard time turning a profit. That’s when Jim Billek stepped in.
Billek, who also owns two single-screen theaters in towns farther north, took over and has been running the place as a four-plex for the past nine years. But now, with the coronavirus outbreak, the Grand Cinema Theatres is in big trouble.
“I’m at the bottom of the totem pole,” Billek says. “If we don’t come up with something, we’re bankrupt.”
Some small theaters have been angling to get a slice of the $350 billion in federal loans made available last month by the stimulus package. Billek was not among them — he says he doesn’t have enough employees to qualify, and even if he did, he doesn’t have a team of accountants on hand to help with the paperwork.
For now, there’s not much to do but sit and hope that when the theaters reopen, the audience returns.
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“You’d have to open up pretty darn fast and with a large amount of people coming to shows in order to turn around,” he says. “The power companies and the bank are not going after me right now. But once we’re open, they’re all going to want their money fast, especially the bank.”
Bill Campbell owns three theaters — a six-plex in Sheridan, Wyo., and a twin and a single-screen in Montana.
He said he hopes the cinemas can resume operations at the end of May. He has received a small loan — less than $100,000 — through the Paycheck Protection Program. That will allow him to keep most of his staff at least through May.
“Some of my college kids and high school kids probably won’t get unemployment,” he says. “I’m the government’s unemployment for my staff.”
If theaters are allowed to reopen by that time, he expects to emerge more or less unscathed. But a longer closure could be a problem.
“If it does go four months, then we’re back to ‘What do we do? Lay off our employees?’” he says. “At some point things have got to reopen.”
Russell Allen runs Allen Theatres, based in Las Cruces, N.M. He foresees a backlash if things don’t start up soon.
“Some of these little towns around New Mexico, there’s nobody that’s got [the coronavirus],” Allen says. “And you’re having the strong arm of the government telling you you can’t open. It’s a hard pill to swallow. Our freedoms are being taken. That’s very disturbing — and it was easy to be done.”
Allen says he was approved for a PPP loan in the neighborhood of $250,000. The loan will enable him to keep his full-time essential workers on staff during the shutdown.
He’s worried that when he reopens, there won’t be any movies to show. But eventually, he predicts, audiences will return.
“We’re gonna have a lot of people that want to escape from life,” he says.