Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, about 630 movie theaters remain closed across North America. And many may never reopen.
The casualties stretch across the continent, afflicting big chains like AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. and mom-and-pop outfits. They’re shut in small towns, like Devils Lake, North Dakota, and in the heart of Hollywood, where plywood has been nailed over the windows of Los Angeles’ iconic Cinerama Dome.
COVID-19 has accelerated trends that preceded the pandemic, with major films today becoming available online far sooner than in the past and moviegoing already on the decline. While Americans are again jamming football stadiums and theme parks, theater attendance is recovering only slowly from last year’s industrywide shutdown.
For small towns like Rutland, Vermont, the closings particularly sting. You can read the pleas to reopen the town’s sole multiplex, Flagship Cinemas, on its Facebook page. It’s the only movie destination for about 50 kilometers.
“I’m a regular that went almost every Thursday night,” one man said. “My birthday ritual is to see a movie,” wrote another film lover. “Today’s my birthday, I’m going to miss it this year.”
The location, part of a Massachusetts-based chain, has been closed even though theaters in Vermont have been allowed to reopen. “It’s been a big loss for the city,” said Dave Allaire, the mayor of Rutland, which has fewer than 16,000 residents.
The shuttered locations represent a little under 12% of the roughly 5,500 U.S. theaters that were operating just before the coronavirus pandemic, according to market researcher Comscore Inc., which says about half of the closed cinemas had three screens or fewer. Altogether, almost 40,000 screens are operating in North America.
The big problem is attendance. Even with several big-budget Hollywood films getting exclusive runs in theaters, box-office receipts remain well below what they were before the pandemic. Movie theaters this year will likely take in about $4 billion in ticket revenue domestically, a fraction of the $11.4 billion generated in 2019.
Data from Comscore show revenue from states on the East Coast, which tended to keep their theaters closed longer and put in capacity restrictions when they reopened, have recovered more slowly than many in the middle of the country.
“If you can’t sell popcorn and you can’t put butts in seats, how can you remain a viable business?” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore.
Wendeslaus Schulz, owner of the six-screen Chalmette Movies in the namesake Louisiana town, couldn’t afford the back rent he owed after months of government-mandated closures.
Schulz, 73, tried to reopen in mid-2020-typically the best season for his theater. But business was just 10% of what it used to be. Chalmette Movies closed for good in March of this year.
“It was just too expensive to stay open,” Schulz said. “The irony of it is I just signed a new lease in February of 2020 and then COVID hit in March. You never know what’s going to happen.”
But like any Hollywood tearjerker, there’s at least a shot at a happy ending. In Crested Butte, a small ski town in Colorado, former employees of The Majestic theater are seeking $300,000 to reopen its doors. They’ve raised more than $40,000 thus far from 500 donors, said Carrie Wallace, one of those leading the effort.
“The movie theater is really an outlet to the world for a lot of people,” she said. “Right now there’s nothing to do at night except go to a bar or a restaurant.”
And on New York’s Long Island, Jay Levinson, 68, is working to reopen two of his shuttered locations, including the Elwood Cinemas in Suffolk County. He expects to invest $250,000 of his own money into Elwood, a theater he’s had for about 20 years, 19 of which he describes as “very good.”
Levinson plans to install luxury recliners. Tickets likely won’t exceed $10 and he anticipates there will be bargain days. Still, he acknowledges a mix of confidence and worry, because of rising COVID numbers, and says others wonder if he still needs three theaters.
“People think I’m crazy,” Levinson said.
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