Movie Theaters Struggle to Draw Crowds as Coronavirus Stay-at-Home Orders Ease

Theaters Reopening Coronavirus
Courtesy of City Base Entertainment

Melanie Parker didn’t know what to expect when she reopened Sweet Onion Cinemas in Vidalia, Ga., shortly after the governor lifted the stay-at-home order. It’s been a few weeks now, and the attendance numbers are pretty dismal.

The first weekend, 34 people came through the doors. The next weekend, it dropped to 14. Parker changed the lineup, adding some Christian movies, and it picked back up to 39 — still a fraction of a typical weekend before the pandemic.

“They’re scared,” Parker says.

Around the country, only a handful of states have allowed theaters to reopen, and in those places most cinemas — including all the big chains — have remained closed. About 3% of indoor theaters were open last week, and those were at limited capacity. Georgia was the first state to reopen, but only a handful of cinemas have actually done so.

Malcolm Neal runs the Ritz Theatre, a historic single-screen cinema in the town of Thomaston.

“We didn’t have hardly anybody the first weekend,” he says. “In a small town, a lot of people wait to hear that somebody else did it before they’ll do it. They want to know their neighbor went last weekend and it was fine.”

Several theater owners feel they had no choice but to open as soon as their state allowed them to. Robert Jones, who owns and operates the Vinita, Okla.-based Center Cinemas, says that the shutdown nearly crippled his business.

“I’m just trying to survive,” he says. “When we closed, no money was coming in, but the bills were still adding up. I couldn’t continue to stay closed and have a future.”

On May 1, he opened one location, then brought back the other two venues on May 15. Attendance is about 25% of what it usually is at this time of year, traditionally the start of blockbuster season.

“This is when I do the most business, but instead I’m just trying to keep my head above water,” Jones says.

Though the studios aren’t releasing new movies, several theater operators say it’s important to test out new safety procedures — like Plexiglas screens, social-distanced seating, and regular sanitization — and to reassure the public. Theater staff wears masks, many audience members do not. Most operators acknowledge that they’re operating at a loss.

“We are going to lose money whether we’re open or not, so we figure we might as well be open,” says Rick Moser, head of operations for Coral Cliffs Cinema 8 in Hurricane, Utah. “Our owner’s philosophy is that we want to give the community something to do.”

Curt Small, who owns Elks Theatre in Rapid City, S.D., says that attendance is down 70%, but he thinks it’s important to keep running so that he’ll be ready to screen “Tenet” and other movies if and when summer blockbuster season begins.

“We need to make sure the gears stay greased,” Small says. “These machines and projectors break down. They’re not designed to sit idle.”

Brad Smith, the managing partner of City Base Cinema in San Antonio, says business has been slow given the lack of new releases. But he was encouraged to see that many of his guests were in their 60s and 70s and weren’t worried about going out.

“There is a stigma,” he acknowledges. But, he adds, “corona is not going to go anywhere, so we need to have a workforce that’s prepared.

“We have a lot of people that are depressed right now — depression and physical abuse,” Smith continues. “We’re seeing it really bad here in San Antonio. Theaters have always been a way to get away from reality.”

Several theater owners reported that the most popular titles so far have been ’80s movies that appeal to the whole family, like “Goonies,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”

At Strike + Reel in Garland, Texas, near Dallas, visitors can watch “Footloose” and “Back to the Future” on an XD screen.

“Even if you saw it as a kid, these big screens weren’t around when most of these movies came out,” says Mark Moore, CEO of the company that owns the venue.

Texas has limited theater occupancy to 25%, and Moore says that overall about half of the available seats have been filled. Given that they aren’t able to show new releases, some theaters are encouraged by the reception.

“On weekends, a lot of our shows are sold out,” he says. “There’s a lot of demand. So many people want to come back to the movies.”

Parker, owner of the theater in Vidalia, certainly hopes that’s the case. She plans to slash ticket prices to $1 or $2 — from the usual $7 — in hopes of drawing an audience. After hearing requests on Facebook, she decided to run “Back to the Future” and “Jaws.”

“We have to rely on nostalgia,” she says. “I keep telling myself to focus on the positive. Nobody’s a quitter, and we’re not quitting.”