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At the movies

How locally-owned movie theaters are weathering 2020

With Covid-related capacity restrictions and a scarcity of big new movie releases, movie theaters are struggling to cover their operating costs and some haven’t been able to open at all.

Among the big chains, area Regal theaters are temporarily closed and the AMC theater in Londonderry is mostly open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, as is the Cinemark in Salem, according to their websites. Likewise, locally-owned movie theaters have worked to find ways to adapt to regulations and uncertain movie release schedules.

Limited capacity, limited releases

One of the biggest challenges movie theaters have faced this year is the shortage of new movies being released.

“Whenever we think [a movie] is coming out, we get news that the studio has pushed the release date out,” said Mike Mannetta, marketing manager for Chunky’s Cinema Pubs, whose screening rooms offer chairs arranged at tables and food and bar menus, with locations in Nashua, Manchester and Pelham. “It’s like we’re chasing a carrot that just keeps moving on us.”

Some studios are bypassing theaters altogether and distributing the new films straight to home video, streaming platforms and on-demand services.

“It’s really hard to get people engaged [with movie theaters] when they have Netflix and HBO and so many different options,” said Angie Lane, executive director of Red River Theatres in Concord, which is a non-profit cinema with a mission to highlight independent films. “And I don’t blame them. It’s definitely easier right now to be like, ‘I’ll just find something to watch on Netflix.’”

Theaters may be able to get a hold of some new indie, local or foreign films or classic movies, but those alone don’t attract enough moviegoers for the theaters to make a profit or, in many cases, even break even with what they have to pay in licensing and operation costs in order to show the movie.

“A lot of these [indie] titles are great films, but they don’t have a great marketing budget,” Lane said, “and it takes a certain attitude that a lot of people don’t have to say, ‘I’ve never heard of this and have no idea what it’s about; I’m going to watch it.’”

“We need the blockbusters; the movies from Disney and all those big studios are the meat of our business,” Mannetta said. “Not having those is what’s really, really hurting us right now.”

But, as Wilton Town Hall Theatre owner Dennis Markaverich can attest, even first-run movies with big-name actors aren’t a surefire antidote to moviegoers’ reluctance to go out, especially to a small, intimate theater. When the theater reopened with new releases Irresistible and Emma in July, it was, Markaverich said, “a disaster.”

“They were first-run movies, one with Steve Carell in it, and guess what? They did terrible,” he said. “The film companies still wanted their regular percentage, which is high, and we weren’t even making the minimum. People weren’t even coming inside. It was like shoveling money into the boilers of the Titanic.”

If and when more moviegoers feel comfortable going to the theaters again, the state’s regulations for theaters, which currently call for a 50-percent reduction in capacity, may still make it difficult for theaters to cover their operating costs.

“Our largest theater can normally hold 150 people, so realistically, right now, with social distancing, we could sell maybe 50 tickets for that one, and maybe 25 tickets for our other theater, which can normally hold 100 people, and that’s at best,” Lane said, “and if we can’t sell enough tickets to cover the cost of opening the theater, our hands are tied. We can’t risk our financial future by trying to stay open. We have to be responsible.”

Bringing back the classics

Local theaters have taken a variety of approaches to coping with the challenges posed by Covid-19.

It’s been easier for some than others. Drive-in theaters were among the first entertainment venues permitted to reopen in New Hampshire on May 11, which was great news for the Milford Drive-In Theater, which has two screens.

“I was ecstatic that the governor’s office recognized that we would be able to [operate safely] and allowed us to open back up so quickly,” said Barry Scharmett, one of the family owners.

The Milford Drive-In Theater opened that same weekend with double features of Onward and The Call of the Wild on one screen and The Invisible Man and The Hunt on the second screen, new releases from February and March that were in the middle of their run when theaters were ordered to close. Tickets sold out fast for all showings. The drive-in continued throughout the summer and fall with a wide range of double features, including family-friendly favorites like Shrek and Despicable Me, horror duos like It and It Chapter Two and The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, comedy pairs like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Big Lebowski, and a “Christmas in July” weekend with titles like Elf, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

“Covid never actually hurt us. The turnout this season was steady and fantastic from the get-go,” Scharmett said. “People wanted to get out of the house and do something, and we were able to provide a safe place for them to do that, so things worked out well for us.”

Milford Drive-In has closed for the season and will reopen in the spring, according to its website.

When indoor theaters got the green light on June 30, Chunky’s opened its doors right away with screenings of Jurassic Park, Ghostbusters and The Goonies. It continued with themed events like “Shark Week” in August, which featured shark-centric movies like Jaws, Open Water and Shark Tales; a screening of Mean Girls on Oct. 3 (fans know it as “Mean Girls Day”); and Halloween classics like Hocus Pocus, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Beetlejuice. They also brought back some popular flicks from the last few years, such as The Greatest Showman and Bohemian Rhapsody.

But screenings of older movies, even if well-attended, bring in nowhere near the amount of revenue that new blockbusters do, Mannetta said. In an effort to compensate for that loss, Chunky’s has been hosting other kinds of entertainment, including live comedy, music, magic and variety shows, trivia, 21+ events sponsored by an alcoholic beverage brand, a celebrity chef dinner series, paint nites, special promotions for kids and more and is, according to Mannetta, “constantly coming up with new, creative events to add.”

“If we just relied on the classic movie showings, we would be really struggling,” he said. “We’re still down significantly [in revenue] from last year, but all these special events we’re doing have been helping a lot with allowing us to continue [operating].”

Regional chain Cinemagic, which has theaters locally in Merrimack, Hooksett and Portsmouth, opened in New Hampshire in August with a similar mix of classic blockbusters as well as the new movies that came out in late summer, like The New Mutants and the Christopher Nolan directed Tenet. Local Cinemagic theaters’ current line-up of films includes new releases such The War with Grandpa featuring Robert De Niro, Honest Thief with Liam Neeson and other films with lower profiles than the big franchise films that have been delayed until 2021.

At Wilton Town Hall Theatre, after seeing the negligible turnout for the two first-run titles that he showed after reopening, Markaverich said he is resigned to showing only classic movies for the foreseeable future. The theater continues to run its Saturday classic films series each week and has been increasing the frequency of its well-attended silent film series, which features live music by silent film accompanist (and Hippo co-founder and associate publisher) Jeff Rapsis, from once a month to several times a month. Markaverich said he still looks forward to “going back into the movie business,” he said, “meaning the real movie business, being open seven nights a week with regular commercial films,” but he’s not going to take that step lightly.

“I already tried, and that act didn’t fly, so why would I try again when I know I’m just going to end up back in that same boat?” he said. “That’s why I’m waiting until I see other [similar theaters] start to turn over some good figures and get some steady flow. That doesn’t seem to be happening, but hopefully someday it does.”

Red River and O’Neil Cinemas in Epping have yet to reopen to the public. Red River has been subsisting on federal relief as it waits for “the safety and the financial viability” to reopen, Lane said, adding that the theater is preparing to attempt “a very limited reopening” before the end of the year.

“The funds have allowed us to breathe a little,” she said. “They’ve given us a bit of a cushion so that we can take the time to survey people … and look at every possible scenario … and really think about what our reopening is going to look like before we do it.”

In April, Red River launched its “virtual cinema,” inviting moviegoers to support the theater by purchasing tickets for new independent films, to be streamed from home.

“It’s not really enough to fund us, but we see it more as an engagement opportunity,” Lane said. “We feel that it’s important for us, as part of what we do as a nonprofit, to be out there in the community in some way. We want to make sure that we’re always meeting our mission, even when we’re not open or not making any money.”

Loni Dirksen, marketing manager for O’Neil Cinemas, said the theater is hoping to reopen next year but will not do so under the current circumstances for as long as they persist.

“We’re waiting for Covid numbers to improve, for restrictions [enforced by the state] to be lifted, and for new movies to start being released again,” Dirksen said, adding that O’Neil has no interest in reopening only to show classic movies.

Though their theaters were closed, O’Neil and Red River were, however, able to host some outdoor events during the summer. O’Neil had four drive-in showings of classic movies like Jurassic Park and Back to the Future, which Dirksen said “were pretty popular.” Red River partnered with Concord Parks and Rec for an outdoor showing of Toy Story, and with Canterbury Shaker Village for an outdoor showing of Casablanca. Lane said Red River may even hold another outdoor movie during the winter.

“Sometimes early December can be a little warmer, so we’re trying to see if that would be feasible and are looking into maybe getting some heaters,” she said.

Want a private screening room?

Another way that many local theaters are supplementing their income is by renting out their spaces as venues for private events for a reduced price. Depending on the theater, renters may be able to show their own DVD or Blu-ray disc or play their own video games on the big screen, and some theaters will provide concessions for the events.

Chunky’s and the Wilton Town Hall Theatre have been doing the rentals for months with a lot of success, according to theater representatives. It’s the main source of income (aside from federal relief funds) for O’Neil Cinemas and for Red River, which just started offering the rentals this week, their representatives said.

Dirksen said the rentals at O’Neil Cinemas have been popular for holiday get-togethers, business meetings, birthday parties and the like.

“It gives people a chance to get out and do something enjoyable,” she said, “and they can feel safe knowing that they’re coming into a clean environment that’s been disinfected just for them, and that all the people there are people from their own group who they’ve been socially distancing with.”

Pandemic protocols

In addition to limiting their capacity to 50 percent as mandated by the state, theaters have implemented a number of different protocols to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and ensure a safe environment for moviegoers.

Standard procedures at all theaters include required mask-wearing for theater staff and patrons, socially distanced seating arrangements and frequent sanitizing of common areas.

“I was adamant about people wearing masks while outside their cars,” Scharmett said of the Milford Drive-in. “If someone came in without a mask, they’d have to find one or leave — no ‘ifs,’ ‘ands’ or ‘buts’ about it.”

Rules about food and concessions vary from theater to theater. Chunky’s, for example, is continuing to offer a scaled-back selection of its pub fare, whereas Red River, when it reopens, will not offer concessions.

“We want people to be able to keep their masks [on] at all times,” Lane said.

Some theaters have taken other kinds of precautions as well. Both Chunky’s and the Drive-in (when it was open) conduct temperature checks with every staff member before every shift, and Red River has updated its air filtration system and is currently working on creating a contactless system for buying tickets in preparation for its reopening.

Dirksen said the actions taken by theaters across the country have been “very effective” so far.

“We recently learned that, as of now, there have been zero cases of Covid-19 connected to a movie theater,” she said. “That’s really great news for us.”

How patrons can help

Support from moviegoers is essential to the survival of movie theaters now more than ever, Lane said.

Theater staff said that one of the best ways to support local theaters is to consider becoming a member if the theater has a membership program, which often gives dues to the theater and gives patrons perks such as reduced admission pricing, guest passes, complimentary popcorn, invitations to members-only events and more.

Some local movie theaters have hosted fundraising events. O’Neil, for example, had a drive-thru popcorn and candy sale in October, and Dirksen said the theater may have another one in the future.

Gift cards are another option, Dirksen said, and can be a big help to theaters that still aren’t open and able to sell tickets.

“We will be opening again, and when we do, those gift cards will be good to use,” she said.

Lane at Red Rivers says donations of even $5 or $10 helps.

“We understand that a lot of people are out of work and struggling and it’s hard to give right now, but whatever they can give is enough,” she said. “Five dollars doesn’t seem like a lot, but if everybody gave that, it adds up.”

Though the CARES Act did provide some loans for small movie theaters, it simply wasn’t enough, Dirksen said, especially for theaters that are still closed.

“Some of us have been closed for six-plus months now and are still not getting any income,” she said.

By encouraging patrons to reach out to local congresspeople to advocate for them and “raise awareness … about how much independent theaters are hurting right now,” Dirksen said, theaters are hoping that Congress will be compelled to provide them with additional relief funding to help them stay afloat.

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