The Pines Theatre, a 450-seat venue with one screen in Houghton Lake, Michigan, opened in 1941 and has survived numerous up and downs of the movie business.
Its latest challenge? The uncertainty caused by the resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the United States.
In mid-June, after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer moved northern Michigan to Phase 5 of the state’s reopening plan, the Pines was able to screen movies for the first time since mid-March.
Under reduced capacity and safety measures, it started running older hits like 1985’s “Goonies” and 1993’s “Jurassic Park.” But after screenings of the 2016 animated hit “Zootopia” two weeks ago, the Pines announced on Facebook that it would be closing again.
Its goal now is to reopen around Aug. 28 in hopes that new major films will arrive by then.
“While playing the older movies was fun, the attendance didn’t justify all the added expenses of payroll, electricity and everything of being open until Hollywood comes out with a new movie,” said Adam Fraser, whose family co-owns the theater and who has worked there for about 25 years, ever since he was a youngster of 13.
Fraser isn’t sure when things will return to normal or even reach the level of a new normal for movie theaters
“I honestly think it will be spring or summer of next year before a full release calendar becomes available again, mixed with a large enough number of customers willing to come see movies,” he said.
RELEASE DATES IN LIMBO
Will you be able to go out to the movies in 2020 or even 2021? Right now, coronavirus pandemic statistics are more reliable indicators than studio announcements.
Given the large number of COVID-19 cases in Florida, Texas and California and elsewhere, the total U.S. death count of more than 150,000 (a figure that keeps climbing) and the 21 states declared red zones for rising infection numbers, potential cinematic blockbusters are playing a delaying game.
“A Quiet Place Part II” has moved from Labor Day weekend to April 23, 2021. “Top Gun: Maverick” jumped from Christmas to July 2, 2021. “Wonder Woman 1984” was bumped from Aug. 14 to Oct. 2, and the buzz is it will be bumped again. “Mulan” is postponed indefinitely.
And what about “Tenet,” the action thriller from director Christopher Nolan that was supposed to save the 2020 summer movie season? After several postponements of its original July 17 release date and a brief period off the schedule entirely, Warner Bros. revealed last week that “Tenet” will open first in 70 countries not including the United States starting Aug. 26.
“Tenet” will arrive in select (and yet to be named) U.S. cities on Sept. 3. At least that’s the current strategy. All upcoming releases seem tentative at the moment and ultimately depend on what happens with the virus.
“Everything is TBD (to be determined), as studios don’t know a couple weeks out if they can even open films in any given city or country due to the fluid nature of contagion,” said Jeff Bock, a senior box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations, a leading source of entertainment research and data, via email.
Bock offered a frank assessment of the outlook for the rest of 2020.
“Whether or not the domestic movie industry is successful comes down to how the United States handles the virus in the coming months. The entertainment industry is on its knees and desperately wants to rise up to where it was before all this began,” he said.
“Tenet” could be a test case for whether audiences are ready to return to enclosed spaces with strangers for long periods of time, Bock said.
If “Tenet” opens in the United States and doesn’t get much attention, “it will likely (shutter) the industry domestically for the remainder of 2020, or until a vaccine is widely available, or Americans start taking this pandemic seriously and quash it out.”
FRUSTRATED THEATER OWNERS
Talk long enough about when movies will return to theaters and the conversation turns to public health policy, specifically the need for a coordinated national strategy for curbing the pandemic.
Countries from South Korea and New Zealand to Canada and Germany have had much success in controlling the spread of the virus. Why isn’t the United States doing the same thing? Experts attribute the alarming rise in cases in large part to states reopening from economic shutdowns and letting up on restrictions too soon.
So far, it has been left up to states to set their own COVID-19 policy. But 50 different ways to govern the virus has resulted in a current average of 60,000 new cases of COVID-19 each day.
As for the notion of a shared individual commitment to taking precautions against the virus, Americans remain too divided for that. Masks, which have science on their side, have become as partisan as political buttons.
If movies are a microcosm of real life, the status of movie theaters now reflects how difficult it is for businesses to rebound amidst a growing pandemic.
Movie theaters rely on a steady supply of new movies in order to make money, while studios rely on being able to open their big-budget projects of $200 million or more on several thousand screens at once.
As of now, the top markets of California and New York remained closed. More than 40 states are now allowing all or most indoor movie theaters to operate, but most haven’t
Michigan has more than 1,270 movie screens at more than 190 locations. Aside from the Upper Peninsula and northern Michigan, the rest of the state is still waiting to get the OK to reopen cinemas.
Tension erupted in June between Whitmer’s office and the Emagine Entertainment chain when Emagine chairman Paul Glantz announced a Juneteenth benefit film festival at Emagine Royal Oak. The event was canceled after the state attorney general’s office warned Glantz in a letter that criminal charges would be filed if the festival proceeded.
Emagine Royal Oak sued Whitmer, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and another state official, but a federal judged sided with Whitmer and denied the suit’s claim that the state’s order amounted to a violation of constitutional rights covered by the First Amendment.
Cory Jacobson, the owner of the Phoenix Theatres in Livonia, Wayne and Monroe, says Whitmer deserves a lot of credit for keeping Michigan in better shape than other states with her tough stance on COVID-19.
But he thinks the state has unfairly lumped together cinemas with concert halls and other indoor performance venues in its reopening plan.
“I think there is a disconnect in terms of perception about movie theaters,” said Jacobson, who argues that contemporary multiplexes are no longer like the old model of hundreds of people sitting shoulder to shoulder.
Jacobson says his multiscreen cinemas, like those of his competitors, have reclining seats that require more distance between rows. Under social distancing guideline, according to him, a single movie auditorium might contain 45 to 50 people.
“In a restaurant, there’s about the same number of people that are in much smaller rooms,” said Jacobson. “I have 30-foot-high ceilings and very, very good air filtration and heating and air conditioning systems to move the air around.”
Though Jacobson believes that multiplexes could open safely (and points to extensive planning already in place for a safe reopening), he also has been thinking outside the box about how to use now-dormant spaces.
In July, he issued a press release floating the idea of turning movie auditoriums into temporary classrooms. Jacobson says he sent out 300 letters to educators in Michigan and in Iowa and Massachusetts, where he also owns theaters.
“I’ve gotten a lot of phone calls and a lot of interest, and I think people are trying to wrap their minds around how exactly to do this,” he said. “I just think we need to get creative.”
Russ Collins, who heads the Michigan Theater Foundation that owns Ann Arbor’s historic Michigan Theater and the State Theater, says he remains optimistic that theaters still can reopen this year in a big way.
“I’ve got to hope that it will. In a sense, we’re ready to open every week. We prepare to be open, but, obviously we’re not currently,” said Collins, a founding director of the Art House Converge, a national group for art house cinemas. “I think commercial theaters as well as independent theaters, they’re working to be very flexible to respond to what the opportunities will be. But I think it’s going to be contingent upon getting control of the infection rates.”
That contingency resonates with Jordan Stancil, a former State Department employee who came home to Grayling in northern Michigan seven years ago to take over his family’s Rialto Theatre.
Stancil describes how his great-grandfather started the business in 1915. The theater had to close during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, he says, although he hasn’t found documents to indicate for how long. The current location opened in 1930 after a fire at the original location.
The Rialto has withstood the Great Depression of the 1930s, World War II in the 1940s, the challenge from television in the 1950s, more recent challenges from VHS tapes and DVDs, the 2008 recession and the millennial rise of online streaming.
“We’ve seen a lot of things where people sort of look at us and say, ‘Oh man, those poor Stancils, running that theater,'” he said with a laugh.
Stancil says he’s in it for the long haul. His main concern right now isn’t when “Tenet” will arrive or when he’ll reopen the Rialto. He’s worried about the fact that America hasn’t successfully reined in the spread of COVID-19.
“The only thing that matters right now is that the public health authorities take whatever steps are necessary to get the virus under control and that’s it, full stop,” he said.
Although he’s frustrated by the lack of a national response to the crisis, Stancil is convinced that movie-going will remain a part of the cultural experience.
“There’s going to be a post-coronavirus world,” he said. “And when that arrives, people are going to go to movie theaters.”