Tony Beaverson got his start in the movie theater business 28 years ago as a way to bring new or first-run movies to Cody. He said he was told by the movie industry, “if people come, you’ll get them.”
“I can never really guarantee that people like the film, but they have comfortable seats, they had good popcorn, it was warm or cool enough,” Beaverson said. “We want that back again.”
A piece of Americana, the alluring flicker of the big screen has brought generations of families together to enjoy a pastime often provided by a local business. Countless industries and professions have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the shockwave felt by local movie theaters and cinemas is still being felt.
Beaverson, owner of Big Horn Cinemas in Cody, said it has been difficult to keep the turnstiles open with the large Hollywood film companies spending an entire spring and summer refusing to release new movies to theaters until recently. Although his business reopened after a more than two-month closure before Memorial Day weekend, five months passed before any mainstream, new movies were delivered to the Big Horn Avenue business. He said about 60% of his theater’s revenue comes from the summer months which were all but lost due to the pandemic.
Beaverson said his theater was closed for about two months, but did have “tremendous” success selling popcorn and candy through a drive-thru pickup line before opening back to the public.
Due to health restrictions imposed throughout the summer, the major Hollywood film companies have been hesitant to release movies, even in states like Wyoming where theaters have been given a full green light. Theaters in parts of large markets in California are just starting to open up, but as of Aug. 31, Los Angeles County and five U.S. states including New York still forbid theaters to open their doors.
Per local health order requirements, Beaverson reopened his cinema with installed plexiglass and heightened sanitation measures like 50% capacity and special cleaning of cupholders.
In an effort to mitigate losses, Beaverson ran 48 older movies over the course of the summer like “Blazing Saddles” 3-4 days a week, but he said these “classics” were not well attended.
“The only reason we were doing that was to keep our name out there a little bit,” he said.
Beaverson did pick up a few new independent flicks in July, but these didn’t fare much better for attendance.
“Nobody knows about them. We rely on people being in the theater and playing the previews,” he said.
Beaverson said it’s critical for his business to stay in the general public’s routine. Too long a hiatus could spell long-term disaster for his business.
“It’s pretty much opening a business again and trying to build a clientele,” he said.
Park County picture
Vali Twin Cinema in Powell has similarly struggled but has been able to open seven days a week. That will reduce back to four days per week in October.
It has found local businesses to sponsor nights at the theater, providing free or reduced-price admission for audiences by essentially paying the theater’s cost of a film rental.
“The public was pretty responsive,” co-owner Brandon Asay said. “It was pretty overwhelming to see how much the community backed us up. They don’t want to see us close.”
Unfortunately, Asay said revenue was still lacking in summer for his business. The older movies didn’t provide much appeal to his audience either.
“I don’t know if they were afraid of the social distancing or the product was that unappealing,” he said.
The American Dream Drive-In, also in Powell, wrapped up its summer season at the end of August. Owner Pokey Heny said after a strong spring filled with community events like graduation parties and church services, the summer season was “hit or miss,” trying to find the right mix of older films to curry favor with a modern generation of movie-goers.
A “Christmas in July” run of holiday movies was not a success, she said.
“That didn’t go so good,” Heny said with a laugh. “But it was fun, we decorated the whole theatre.”
The Drive-In will reopen for Halloween weekend as usual, and Heny is looking forward to next summer.
“I’m optimistic it’ll return to normal,” she said.
Big blockbuster hits like “A Quiet Place Part II,” “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Wonder Woman 1984” have been delayed to later openings in 2020 and 2021, while “Mulan” was postponed indefinitely in theaters.
Instead, “Mulan” premiered on Disney’s new streaming service Disney+ last Friday for an additional $30 fee to subscribers. Beaverson is frustrated the National Association of Theatre Owners has not opposed this move vocally, and Asay is also concerned about the ramifications of the premier.
“If they’re successful doing that, that might be the demise of movie theaters all together,” said Asay. “If they can sit at home watching a movie without worry … that’s a scary thing for theater owners.”
Disney also cut off access to even its older movies after the first few months of the pandemic.
“I felt Disney was thinking more about Disney,” said Heny.
Beaverson said he has not felt well represented by the national association during these trying times. Even when he sent out a request for a single movie that he could play for a few months, he was met with rejection.
“They just said, ‘Hollywood will never do that,’” Beaverson said. “So what are they doing? They’re doing it now.
“There’s a big film, it’s not going to play in New York or L.A.”
The film Beaverson is referring to is “Tenet,” a new blockbuster spy film directed by Christopher Nolan that premiered over Labor Day weekend.
“That’s supposed to be the one to get people back in theaters,” he said.
Beaverson said although a few hundred people came to the movies mostly for that film, it was still only a fraction of the attendance he usually sees over Labor Day weekend.
The national association represents more than 35,000 theaters in America. It has offices in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles and exists for the purpose of influencing federal policy-making and working with movie distributors.
In April, it released a statement that, “Until the majority of markets in the U.S. are open, and major markets in particular, new wide release movies are unlikely to be available.”
It did not issue any demands or pressure on film companies in the release.
Beaverson said he plans to drop his membership next year.
Asay is not a member but said scant leverage exists for small theaters to apply against the major film companies.
“There’s not a lot they can do for us because we’re the little guy,” he said. “We either fall in line or don’t play their pictures.
“The studios are basically telling us how to run our business.”
A family experience
Beaverson will use September, a notoriously slow month for attendance, as a trial run for a return to twice-daily movie showings. He hopes by October attendance will pick back up.
However, it may not be until Thanksgiving that a true comeback emerges for theaters, with colder temperatures and holiday get-togethers pushing families indoors. Beaverson said the winter holidays account for about 20% of his total sales.
The next James Bond movie, “No Time to Die,” is still scheduled to come out in November, while “Black Widow” and the Pixar Studios film “Soul” are also coming out that month.
“As long as we don’t have a big uptick in COVID cases we should be OK,” Beaverson said.
The theater industry was not in great shape even prior to the pandemic. Global ticket sales have been roughly flat since 1995, resulting in a per-capita decline in sales when considering population growth. With the influx of digital streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, film companies are sending fewer movies than ever to brick and mortar theaters, and likewise, it’s easier for consumers to take in a new movie from their couch.
Still, no matter how convenient at-home streaming becomes, local theater owners are working to ensure it can never replace a night at the movies.
“I’m selling you an experience, a family experience,” Heny said.
Organization lobbies Congress
The National Association of Theatre Owners will be hosting a virtual “fly-in” in September to make the case to Congress for continued COVID-19 relief. Exhibitors will meet with members of Congress and their staffs to discuss relief measures including tax credits, the RESTART Act, liability protections, and further reforms to the Main Street Lending Program.
The RESTART Act, which has been mired in debate since its U.S. Senate introduction in May, would extend the Paycheck Protection Program and allow businesses with up to 5,000 employees to apply for loans with terms lasting up to seven years. In addition to small theaters like Big Horn and Vali Twin cinemas, this legislation would benefit some of the larger theater corporations as well. The bill also establishes loans for businesses with fewer than 500 employees as long as they suffered a 25% loss in revenue.