How movie industry changed in a pandemic

Ethan Darnall

The vibrating chatter of massive crowds, auxiliary slushy machines on carts, cold April air rushing in from the line stretching outside the theater, geometric patterns created from layers upon layers of velvet ropes. This was movie theaters at their prime and as we knew them when the Avengers Endgame premiered April, 2019. Only ten months and twenty days later, movie theater seats went empty, indefinitely. Concession stands gathered dust, keys rattled in and out of pockets as sulking entrepreneurs locked doors and possibly kissed goodbye to their career startup.

Photo by Ethan Darnall

The AMC Star Southfield 20 permanently under lock and key due to lack of funding from the COVID-19 shutdown.

“There aren't very many businesses that can be closed for seven months and survive,” representative and managing member of Cloud 9 Theater Partners Laura Goldstein said.

Even when the theaters were allowed to reopen on October 9, 2020, owners and employees had to deal with a number of mandated limitations: 20% capacity, mass cleaning supplies, compliant HVAC systems, limited concessions, and deep cleaning after each showing.

Like every other business operating during COVID, movie theaters had to comply with such government requirements to operate safely.

Goldstien explained how her team created a plan to be ready for COVID and abide by each state’s rules.

“First of all, we have a trade association called The National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), and they have calls every week and put together a program called Cinema Safe,” Goldstein said.

The Cinema Safe program forced the theater to spend much more on precautionary, safety supplies, taxes, and increased utility charges. At the same time, revenue from sales were drastically reduces.

“It's truly been a very tough time for movie theaters. We were doing okay for a while after we reopened, and I seriously hope we can ride this out. It just depends on how long we have to stay at different capacity numbers.” Goldstein said.

Photo by Ethan Darnall

The Birmingham 8 sign shining through the late night, a staple in Birmingham’s display of lights. The Birmingham 8 has been able to stay afloat in these trying times, unlike some less fortunate AMC theaters around.

What happens if these theaters can’t keep up with the costs of having a movie theater that is inoperable?

The short answer is bankruptcy— a harsh reality for businesses whose livelihood depends on drawing customers back to public spaces and communal activities. Keeping the doors open is a struggle when an industry is not only viewed as nonessential, but often regarded as a hot spot, or super spreader when COVID cases rise. Even if the population can overcome the initial fear of COVID and go back to doing essential tasks, such grocery shopping, sitting among others for a few hours of enjoyment while watching a movie is hard to envision.

“People just aren't really going. It's really far under 20% [the 20% capacity restriction designated for Michigan theaters]. We don't even get close to hitting our capacity maximums” Goldstein said.

Movie theaters were one of the last businesses allowed to reopen before the second partial shutdown in Michigan and were heavily scrutinized throughout the reopening process - seven months after being shut down. Despite all the safety precautions movie theaters have put in place, people still fear movie theaters.

“I was very nervous going to the movie theater. I feel like it's a lot of people in one place for a long period of time, and that's when the virus has the most time to infect people. I was really nervous because I don’t want to bring the sickness home to my family and I don't want to bring the sickness to my friends,” senior Jimmy Allen said.

To minimize his interaction with others at the movie theater, Allen chose to attend a weeknight show. Allen and his two friends were the only ones in the theater.

“Although the lack of other customers made me feel more comfortable in the theater, I couldn’t help thinking, how does this theater stay open with so few customers?” Allen said.

Another theater-goer, Royal Oak High School junior Camille Patenaude also felt uneasy in such desolate theaters.

“Although it was fun to do something normal, it just wasn’t the same. Theaters used to be busy and you’d hang out with lots of friends. Now it’s just so quiet and almost eerie with so few people around.” “After COVID started I turned to Netflix mainly. I also bought Disney+ because they released exclusives to watch while in quarantine. Also, during the summer, my friends and I went to a couple drive-in movies, which was a lot of fun” Patenaude said.

Drive-in movie theaters made a resurgence in the summer of 2020 because of its familiar and isolated feel. Netflix Party also became the rage in 2020 because it allowed friends to watch the same Netflix movie or show at the same time while interacting with each other, even while in different homes.

Charlotte Beggs, as a Groves alumna, former Scriptor editor-in-chief, media major at the University of Michigan as well as President of M-agination films reflected on how Covid may simply accelerate a transformation already taking place in the entertainment world.

“I think that, over time, there's going to be some changes with movie theaters especially since streaming services are such a big thing right now. I think that I could definitely see movie theaters being affected by this because, even before COVID, the industry was already moving away from making movies and more towards making television shows and limited series because that’s what people want to see,” Beggs said.

Photo by Ethan Darnall

Decrepit and deserted: The AMC Star Southfield 20 “Now Showing” signs still stand, littered in dirt and feces after the building’s permanent closure was announced March 17th, 2020, the day COVID-19 had it’s first Michigan case.

Another blow to the theater business has been the continued delay of new movie releases. Big production studios, such as Universal Pictures and Walt Disney Co., have delayed premiering their movies with so few moviegoers in theaters. Many blockbuster releases, such as Wonder Woman 1984 and Black Widow, have been delayed indefinitely while other popular titles-- such as Soul, Greyhound, and Mulan--completely changed to release on popular streaming services instead. Tenet was one of the few highly anticipated movies to be released in theaters during COVID.

Patenaude feels these delays also negatively impacted the quality of the movies that released. Referencing her first during-COVID movie experience, Patenaude said

Let Him Go was of high production value, but I could not stay engaged to the boring plot. It was just kind of a bland movie with about ten minutes of interesting action and content at the very end. Sadly I picked that movie because it had the highest ratings of the stuff available.”

Before the partial shutdown, movie theaters tried to find various ways to stay afloat with low turnout, decreased sales and increased costs. Replaying old movies, which are less costly to air, advertising private screenings, and making reservations for private parties helped bring in sales. However, not be enough.

The National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) lobbied the government for pandemic relief measures in early October succeeding with a 454 billion dollar guarantee fund to help deal with fixed costs when shut down due to government regulations. Beggs’s belief in funding for the art and entertainment business was fulfilled.

“I definitely think that the arts are very important in our culture, and society in general. I personally believe it's very important that we're funding the arts, and we're funding these organizations that can't be making their content right now because of Coronavirus,” Beggs said.

Without some sort of government assistance, it is difficult to imagine theaters surviving while COVID cases surge across the country and local governments are shutting down nonessential businesses again. Governor Whitmer’s latest restrictions, announced November 15, require movie theaters to be closed for (at least) three weeks.

While Goldstein cannot fathom the possibility of movie theaters becoming a thing of the past. Without huge blockbuster opening weekends, not only will fans have a different reality, so will actors, directors and producers. Goldstein worries about a potential demise of this nonessential industry, but Beggs predicted a decline in movie theater attendance before Covid 19.

“I would say that I could kind of see movie theaters slowly becoming more and more obsolete. I think that movie theaters could become the new drive-in theater in 20-years’ time, meaning they still exist but they're kind of few and far between because everyone is flocking to the streaming services,” Beggs said. “Especially Gen Z. They'd rather sit down and watch a limited series than watch a movie. So the content, not just COVID, is changing how we watch movies.”

Photo by Ethan Darnall

The Birmingham 8 main sign glows warm, inviting all around Birmingham to come back and enjoy their favorite movies after re-opening to the public on October 15th, 2020.

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