Movie theaters struggle statewide as pandemic drags on

Milford Movies 9 is opening at a deeply unstable time for the American film industry.

“It’s in fragile condition,” the theater’s owner, Arthur Helmick, said of the industry at large. “There will be thousands of screens that will go dark in America that will not reopen.”

There are also many that have closed temporarily.

“Generally, there’s about 5,000 theaters that normally would play a (blockbuster) movie,” Mr. Helmick said. “(But) right now, only 39% of the movie theaters in the United States are open.”

He said that state-mandated cuts to theater capacities and changes to the way studios distribute their movies, both byproducts of the pandemic, are the biggest barriers to the industry’s economic health.

According to the Delaware Division of Small Business’ website, theaters are allowed to fill up to 60% of their fire occupancy limits, so long as patrons can maintain 6 feet of distance between themselves.

“The studios keep changing the rollouts of the movies, and our governor keeps changing my seating capacity,” said Tiffany Derrickson, the third-generation owner and operator of Movies at Midway in Rehoboth Beach.

“We just have to get through COVID-19,” Mr. Helmick said. “That’s really what it’s about.”

New practices
Mr. Helmick owns two other theaters, Main Street Movies 5 in Newark and Westown Movies in Middletown. Sven Johnson, the current manager of Milford Movies 9, used to work at the Middletown location.

“We’re hanging in there. Everything’s going OK,” he said of that theater. “We’re doing what we can to survive.”

There, Mr. Helmick and the staff are trying out some unique ways to bring in additional revenue.

“We started doing a private rental, where people can come for a movie in the theater by themselves. That’s kind of helped keep business going,” Mr. Johnson said.

“We’re also bringing in the old, classic movies. That’s something people have been really excited about,” he said. “Movies you haven’t seen on the screen in 10 or 20 years, we were able to bring back because the studios let us.”

The studios may give a little bit, but they have also taken a lot from theater owners throughout the pandemic.

Trouble with distributors
“We’ve always been product-dependent, and the studios failed to give us product,” Ms. Derrickson said.

“Initially, when we opened on June 1, we opened with retro movies and thought that, in July, we had all these movies coming,” she said.

But many of those movies have been pushed back indefinitely and others have been released in ways that diminish the traditional movie theater’s historic primacy over streaming services.

“There are some distributors that are providing current and new films. There are other studios that are holding them back, waiting until the situation gets better and they can expect a larger audience,” said Sue Early, the director of the nonprofit Rehoboth Beach Film Society, which runs the Cinema Art Theater in Lewes.

“There are some distributors that are releasing their films (on streaming platforms) at the same time they’re putting them in theaters, which makes things a little more challenging for theaters because then people have the option of staying home,” she said.

Ms. Early’s theater, which focuses on independent films rather than traditional Hollywood movies, has tried to take a page out of the studios’ playbook.

“We’ve been doing virtual screenings,” she said, during which a movie will be streamed on the theater’s website at the same time it is shown in the actual theater.

“You can be on your laptop or your TV or whatever electronic device you have,” Ms. Early said. “You go online, you pay for admission, then you watch a film instead of having to go out.”

She pointed out that “not every film is available that way, so it is limited as to what films you can watch.”

Safety, restrictions and government support
The state-mandated COVID-19 precautions now present across much of the country have also hit Delaware movie theaters hard.

Mr. Helmick, Ms. Early and Ms. Derrickson all reported they have put stringent guidelines in place, which include temperatures checks for employees and spaced-out seating and staggered showtimes for patrons, as well as mandatory masks and social distancing for everyone.

Ms. Derrickson believes state leaders are partially responsible for her struggles.

“Things were starting to (get better) before Thanksgiving, when Gov. Carney put the restrictions back in and brought us back to Phase 1,” she said of attendance levels at her theater.

“Going to the movies is way safer than some of the things people are choosing to do,” she added.

She said she believes going to the cinema is healthier than many activities people are permitted to do, like shopping at big box stores.

“You can have your social-distancing space (when you’re) in an auditorium with at most 30 other people instead of at the grocery store with … God knows how many people,” Ms. Derrickson said.

In an interview last year, Mr. Helmick also pointed out that theaters are particularly pandemic-friendly indoor spaces because they need to be built with ventilation in mind.

“We’ve always had to deal with a high-ventilation system due to the fact that you’re putting a lot of people in a room, so you’ve always had (carbon dioxide) issues,” he said.

Ms. Derrickson said that “when the governor of your state tells people to stay at home, he puts fear in people, and it hurts businesses. It especially hurts small, family-run businesses.”

Her theater has received limited support from the federal government in the form of a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but Ms. Derrickson said she was rejected from the Delaware Division of Small Business’ relief grant program.

Ms. Derrickson said she has been lobbying U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.

“This fall, I had Sen. Carper, the former governor, come to the theater. We showed him all of our new protocols and walked around, encouraging him to support any bill that was coming,” she said.

“Right after Christmas, they passed the new Christmas relief bill, which does have funding allotted for independent movie theaters,” Ms. Derrickson said. “I’m actually doing a Zoom with Carper’s office on Friday to find out more about that.”

Ms. Early said her organization also received a PPP loan and was accepted into DSB’s relief grant program.

Closures and current hours
All the challenges theaters have faced have led many to close their doors long-term. The movie theater on the Air Force base in Dover has been shuttered since March.

“Due to the increased risk of exposure of COVID-19, we will be closed for the next three weeks,” a post on the theater’s Facebook page from March 17 says.

Although another post from June 17 said the staff was working on bringing the theater back online, the page’s final post from Aug. 14 announced that would not be happening.

“It is with a heavy heart (that staff will) inform everyone that (Army and Air Force Exchange Service) will not be opening our theater for at least another year,” the post says.

In replying to a commenter’s question, the page confirmed the theater would be closed until at least “a year from” Aug. 14.

“A permanent closure isn’t ‘official’ yet,” it added.

Furthermore, the Clayton Theatre, Delaware’s last remaining single-theater movie house, has also shut its doors.

“The Clayton Theatre is currently closed,” said a Facebook post on the theater’s page penned Nov. 1. “Pending the status of the COVID pandemic, we hope to reopen with a great family film for the holiday season.”

But the holiday season has come and gone, and the theater has not come back online.

“We are not sure where the new year will take us,” a post from Christmas Day says. “The movie industry is currently changing every day. We will keep you posted as we shape our plan for 2021.”

While Ms. Derrickson reported that the Regal Cinemas in Salisbury, Maryland, is closed, the Fox Gold Coast theater in Ocean City, Maryland, is still selling tickets seven days a week through the foreseeable future.

At the Dover Mall, the AMC location is offering evening screenings of “Wonder Woman 1984” on Friday, Saturday and Sunday this weekend. The Cinemark location at Christiana Mall is continuing to show movies seven days a week.

Looking forward
Although it may be down for the count, Ms. Early doesn’t think the movie theater industry is done for.

“I think it’s going to be a slow return, but theaters will come back,” she said.
“I think people will always want to watch a film in the theater,” Ms. Early said. “You can’t compare the experience of watching on a TV to watching on the big screen.

“You go with a friend. You talk about the film afterwards. You meet other people in the hallway and start talking about it.”