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Keith Walker (left) and Matt Sconce founded Movie Heroes, revitalizing local movie theaters in the Central Valley using a subscription model. Photo contributed.

published on October 26, 2020 - 2:00 PM
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Movie studios and theaters depend on blockbuster opening weekends, but after continuously delayed movie premiere dates, Cineworld announced temporary closures of all 536 Regal Cinemas in North America, forcing smaller theaters to fight to survive.

Analysts warn that Cineworld, a British company, could run out of cash by the end of the year.

“There’s the real possibility that they’re going to help people develop the habit of not going out to the theaters, and that could kill the theater industry forever,” said Matt Sconce, chief creative officer of Oakhurst’s Met Cinema.

Bob Gran operates four movie theaters and two drive-ins, including the Madera Drive-In. His indoor movie theaters are not allowed to reopen yet because of Covid restrictions. In addition, his drive-in capacity has been cut from 300 to 200 cars.

Gran said his industry is very product-dependent, and it’s difficult to operate theaters when there’s no product to make money off of.

Promising new movies like “Wonder Woman 1984,” the James Bond film, “No Time to Die,” and Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” have all been pushed back into 2021.

“This week has just been hell in the theater business,” Gran said.

 

Marriage made in hell

Movie studios have delayed movie release dates because the audience isn’t big enough to make a profit, but lack of big audiences forces theaters into financial turmoil, unable to profit to cover basic costs like rent and electricity.

“We’re married to each other, meaning the film companies need me to make money, and I need them to make money,” Gran said.

With more labor and limited attendance, it’s almost impossible to break even at the drive-in. However, that’s what’s keeping them afloat.

“Our business is really bleak right now,” Gran said. “My employees still ask me, ‘When are we going to get open,’ and I say, ‘I wish I could tell you. I truly don’t know at this point.’”

Success at the drive-in has meant showing classic movies and other titles from years past. Examples include “Carrie,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows” and “Coco,” but Gran noted that older movies don’t always bring a crowd to indoor theaters.

Indoor theaters cannot operate in Madera County, but Sconce says there’s a flaw in the system of restrictions. Where the Met Cinema is situated in Madera County, there are few Covid cases. But Covid restrictions are categorized by county, not parts of the counties. He predicts it will be a while before reopening since Madera County would have to move from the purple tier to the red, which allows theaters to open at 25% capacity.

“I’ve been in this business almost 50 years and I’ve never seen anything like it, and I deal with people that have been in it even longer, and they’ve never seen anything like it,” Gran said.

 

Alternative models

The Met Cinema is a subscription-based theater, the first of its kind in the United States, allowing members to pay $20 per month to see unlimited movies.

“That’s why we’re still alive, because probably about two-thirds of them stuck around even when we had to close, and decided to keep their memberships going to keep the theater alive for when it can reopen,” Sconce said.

They’re preparing to soon show movies drive-in style, so they can still give the movie experience without allowing people inside.

Mac Torluccio, senior program director for entertainment business at The Los Angeles Film School, said that drive-ins have been a positive way to keep the industry alive until indoor theaters can stay open. In Los Angeles, people are reviving drive-ins in parking lots.

When it’s time to reopen the Met Cinema, Sconce plans to draw people to the theater with both nostalgic and independent films.

“I feel like we could fill the screens with some really quality independent films, while we’re getting maybe some throwbacks like ‘Jaws,’ things like that,” Sconce said.

He believes it’s a great way to provide quality content to members until new movies premiere.

 

A Hollywood problem

Torluccio weighed in on the production side of the industry. Production has slowed as the biggest movie markets in the country, New York and California, have mostly shut down.

“There is tons of production in America that is coming back at a snail’s pace,” Torluccio said, referring to TV and film.

Torluccio referenced the growing challenges of production crews today: bigger budgets, Covid insurance and testing, and increasing health and safety protocols to function in the pandemic.

Many TV and film sets have had to pause production because of positive Covid results. Crews take weeks off to quarantine and then resume their jobs.

“Now these budgets of these productions have grown exponentially because now they need insurance, Covid insurance, Covid planning, six feet of distance, extra space, external environment — all these other protocols have to be in place before they can even get to post-production, before they can even prep the movie to get released in theaters,” he said.

The businesses of theaters and movie production depend on people coming together.

“When you just look at, like, the local mom-and-pop theaters in each state, and then you look at the larger scale theaters — the Regals, the AMCs — point blank, they need people to go see movies. That’s their business,” Torluccio said.

 

Matter of priorities

Torluccio says that even though people are becoming impatient with the restrictions, it’s important to remember the thick of the pandemic’s threat in the spring.

“These governments are not in the business of movie theaters; they are in the business of making sure that the public and citizens are safe and okay,” Torluccio said.

While Torluccio recognizes it’s hard for theaters to make money, he also notes that entertainment businesses are not unlike other industries facing closures and financial hardship.

The pandemic has forced many industries to reinvent themselves. Torluccio believes we will see more activity on streaming platforms, and more cord-cutting in homes across the country. There have already been several releases like “Mulan” and “Soul” forwarded to streaming platforms.

One long-anticipated title set to be released this year, Eddie Murphy’s “Coming 2 America,” was reportedly sold this week by Distributor Paramount Pictures to streaming giant Amazon Studios in a deal worth a reported $125 million.

“I still think even though we’re a half year into this, I honestly think it’s a little bit too soon to decide how much will really shift from this,” Torluccio said.

Torluccio doesn’t think the industry will abandon all the money it’s put into the market even in the last 20 years since movies switched from film to digital.

 

Cinema as catharsis

The temporary penalty, Sconce says, is that people are not sharing in life experiences and emotions. Sconce said that the current shutdowns further isolate people from experiencing the nuances of life together.

“There’s a lot in society that separates people into private, isolated states,” he said.

Shared emotion is one of the reasons he owns a theater.

“There’s not as many group situations anymore, where they can experience emotions together,” Sconce said, “and I feel like the movie theater is one of the places that people can go and experience laughter and tears and excitement with a group of people on a huge screen with amazing sound that makes it so much more impactful.”

He noted that filmmakers tell stories that touch people’s hearts, and this is different than pausing movies at home and checking their social media newsfeeds, dividing their attention.

He hopes to see this in the near future.

“Let the little theaters open, because Regal may be able to survive this to open next year, but little theaters — like, we can’t make it. We have to be able to open or we’re not going to be around anymore,” Sconce said.


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