The Madera Drive-in opens Friday with new safety rules related to COVID-19.

published on April 23, 2020 - 2:43 PM
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Even with customers separated by car doors and glass, Bob Gran Jr., operator of the Madera Drive-in, says he wouldn’t open even if he could.

“It comes down to this — it still puts your customers and employees at risk,” Gran says.

The outbreak of coronavirus debuted on cue with the seasonal opening of the Madera Drive-In.

Gran, who is vice president of operations, operates four movie theaters and two drive-ins throughout the state. All six of the properties under Cal Gran Theaters LLC are closed, in-line with Gov. Newsom’s list of essential businesses. But from movie studios all the way to movie theaters, uncertainty regarding not only shelter-in-place orders but also movie releases has put a business operating on razor-thin margins up in the air about when and how it will reopen.

If it weren’t for coronavirus, Gran would have opened March 27, looking forward to a “strong year.” While sales had been down 6% for the year compared to 2019, projections for blockbusters from Disney and Paramount — among others — were forecast to put theaters 2% over the previous year, Gran says.

In the 50 years of doing business for Gran, he has never seen anything like this. Movie studios with millions of dollars tied up into their movies don’t know how or when to release their films.

Disney had slated “Mulan” to open in March. Theaters are now tentatively getting a date of July 24. The Pixar movie “Soul” moved from June 19 to November. A new “Purge” movie was to open in July and has also been pushed back. The newest chapter in the “Fast and the Furious” franchise was rescheduled for next year, Gran says.

And in a “product dependent” industry such as movie theaters and drive-ins, movie releases determine whether Gran can make money or not. “If they don’t give us good product to play, it’s pretty damn hard to get someone in the movie theater,” he said.

At the national level, rumors among investors are circulating that movie theater giant AMC will declare bankruptcy, according to Variety Magazine. AMC has $4.9 billion in debt. Cineworld, which owns Regal Entertainment, told investors if closures went on much longer, it could default on its loans, according to Movieweb.com.

Gov. Newsom gave six criteria to be met before stay-at-home orders would be lifted. And even then, Gran thinks movie theaters will be among the last to open, though drive-ins may be come online quicker than his theaters, he thinks.

Even if his business opens in time for the releases of these movies, studios will want time to market big releases. Which leaves open how he’ll operate for business. He doesn’t know if he’ll open, showing classic movies for a couple weeks or if he’ll wait for the blockbusters to premiere. He also has concession vendors chomping at the bit for him to reopen as well.

Regardless, because of coronavirus, he will have to reevaluate how to do business. He wants to be able to maintain safety with crowds and he’ll have to step up cleaning efforts for the future.

“We’re not going to be able to flip a switch and everything goes back to normal,” he said.


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