Movie theaters hanging by a thread after closures, lack of new films

  • This May 14, 2020, photo shows an AMC theater sign at a nearly empty parking lot for the theater in Londonderry, N.H. After three months of near total blackout of cinemas nationwide, movie theaters are preparing to reopen - even if it means only a few titles on the marquee and showings limited to as little as 25% capacity. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Monitor staff
Published: 2/23/2021 4:15:10 PM

If the collapse of Cinemagic on top of the months-long hibernation of Regal and AMC theaters didn’t give you a hint about how bad the movie theater business is right now, Albert Waitt can fill in the details.

“We were very excited over Christmas vacation because it was a great week. It was a great week for now – but before (the pandemic) it would have been like a week in February where it snowed for four days,” said Waitt, director of operations for Smitty’s Cinemas. “Our good weeks now would have bad weeks, really bad weeks, before.”

The indipendent chain has kept four of its five dine-in movie houses open, two in Maine as well as one in Tilton and another in Windham, but Waitt said it has been touch and go even with pandemic funding from both states meant to keep businesses afloat.

“It’s tough to make a profit at the business level we’re doing, maybe 25% of what we’d normally been doing,” he said.

Like all theaters, Smitty’s was hit first by shutdown orders, then by people’s reluctance to attend public events, and finally by Hollywood’s decision to withhold virtually all big releases this year. 

That combination has been lethal to larger cinema chains. New Hampshire-based Cinemagic announced this week it would not reopen its eight theaters in northern New England, including the one in Hooksett.

Cineworld, parent company of Regal Theaters including the 10-screen complex on Loudon Road, says it hopes to reopen at least some of its theaters in March after they have been shuttered since last fall, although no details are forthcoming. National chain AMC, which has two theaters in New Hampshire, has said the same. 

Red River Theaters in downtown Concord has been shuttered for almost a year, although it has some special showings like a Valentine’s Day event in which couples could book private rentals. That did well, said Angie Lane, executive director of the non-profit organization, but it’s no substitute.

Even if the pandemic eases this spring, she said the theater will face a shortage of new films to fill its three screens.

“We are in contact with our distributor and film-booker every day. Our film booker, he’s been indicating it will most likely be fall before …  enough films become available,” said Lane.

“We know we have to continue to push through. … There is no finish line where we magically bounce back,” she said.

Smitty’s has held on for a number of reasons. One of them, said Waitt, is its dine-in model which creates a restaurant-like atmosphere that has helped overcome people’s reluctance. Chunky’s Cinema Pub, a New Hampshire chain that has three dine-in movie theaters in the state, has also stayed open.

Servers at Smitty’s still brings food to people’s tables, but ordering and payment is done via apps so there’s less contact and tables are more spaced out for social distancing.

Smitty’s has held on partly by cost-cutting. Staffing is at about half the previous level, Waitt said, and the company has pared back its menu. Most of the time the theaters are open only Thursday through Sunday, which cuts the number weekly showings almost in half.

It has also rolled out a service where you can rent an entire theater for a showing for $250, with unlimited popcorn and soda.

The movie selection has changed, as well, with family fare drawing people even though most of the movies are released on streaming services at the same time they come into theaters.

“‘The Croods’ is available video on demand, but has been one of the No. 1 movies in the country over the last few months and leading the way for us, too,” said Waitt.  That film, “The Croods: A New Age,” has been running in Tilton since the last week of November and is still bringing in viewers.

“People want to watch movies on the big screen, they want that experience. They want to get out of the house,” said George Lodge, general manager of the Tilton theater. “I think there’s a lot of regulars that want to support their local theater, too.”

Waitt said he thinks the updated version of the Tom & Jerry cartoon coming out in a week will do well too.

But it’s not just kids movies. “Wonder Woman 1984,” one of the few major films that came out in late 2020, has been playing for two months in Tilton, along with other current releases like “Judas and the Black Messiah,” about the FBI infiltration of the Black Panther group, and the thriller “The Little Things.” Those two share something, Waitt said: They’re relatively low-budget releases with little spent on publicity, so studios are willing to release them even in this low-return environment.

There is one bright spot, however. So many films have been held back that 2022 could turn out to be a film lover’s dream.

“Once we get over the hump and things return to ‘normal,’ I think we're going to have a huge 18 months of movies, just because of the backlog. They're going to have three years of movies coming out in a year and a half.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@c monitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)



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