Local theaters struggle, adapt to COVID lifestyle


Symmone Gauer, Reporter (She/her)

Movie theaters are doing what they can to bring audiences back to the big screen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s been a tough challenge.

Labeling some seats off-limits, requiring masks and filtering the air are just some of the precautions they are taking, but the public hasn’t been quick to return.

Despite the differences, some patrons are enjoying the theaters all the same.

“To me, it was actually pretty normal … Honestly, it didn’t seem like any different experience,” Abby Noltner, a junior nursing student at South Dakota State University, said. She saw the new sci-fi film “Tenet” in theaters late September with a friend.

Cara Teigum, a junior agricultural leadership student, also saw “Tenet.”

“I don’t know that all that much changed except less people,” Teigum said.

She noted that there were only a handful of people in the theater besides her and her friends when she went.

“You know how you leave a movie and you talk about it? I’m pretty sure we talked about it for another two hours — just could not stop talking about it. I was holding on the whole time,” Teigum said.

But “Tenet,” the cerebral thriller directed by Christopher Nolan, did not produce the results the movie industry was hoping for.

The New York Times said Warner Bros. promoted the $200 million film as a “’global tent pole of jaw-dropping size, scope and scale,’” and it was part of the reason many theaters in the U.S. opened back up before Labor Day.

“I don’t want to call it an upscale-type picture, but it was,” said Dick Peterson, owner of Brookings Cinema 8. As a third-generation theater owner, Peterson realized “Tenet’s” target audience was perhaps too narrow. Christopher Nolan’s films are described as deep and often confusing, and Tenet’s time travel plot was no exception.

“Either you like Christopher Nolan or you don’t. ‘Tenet’ [is a] good picture, it just didn’t do the business we anticipated,” Peterson said.

Todd Frager, the manager at West Mall 7 Theaters in Sioux Falls, agreed.

“‘Tenet’ performed very … I don’t want to say it was too bad, but it was pretty weak here in the Midwest,” he said.

The results were the same all over the country, according to data from The Numbers. “Tenet” grossed only $50.6 million at the domestic box office, which is underwhelming compared to the $188 million box office gross of Nolan’s 2014 film “Interstellar.” “Tenet” is faring better at the international box office with a gross of nearly $282 million. This is, in part, because more international theaters have reopened during the pandemic than in the U.S.

Brookings Cinema 8 reopened to the public May 22 and is now operating only Fridays through Sundays and Tuesdays. With over 1,200 seats between the eight theaters inside Cinema 8, Petersen said only 337 seats are available for patrons because of social distancing measures.

The fall is already a poor time of year for moviegoing, according to Frager. Now, because of the pandemic, many film companies have either pulled their films to release through streaming or pushed the release dates into 2021.

Many theaters, like Cinema 8, have been showing older films to fill the void.

Sydnie Peters, a fifth-year senior double majoring in agricultural leadership and dairy manufacturing, has been taking advantage of the classics. She went to showings of all three “The Lord of the Rings” films at the Brookings theater.

“I’m a big ‘Lord of the Rings’ fan, so that’s what caught my interest. And then they were playing the extended editions, which I’ve never seen before, so I [thought] ‘Oh, my gosh, I need to see these,’” Peters said. “It’s just such an awesome opportunity to see some of my favorite movies in theaters.”

Unfortunately, the movie-theater business is still hurting—and that’s everywhere. Regal Cinemas, the second largest movie theater chain the country, temporarily closed all its theaters Oct. 9.

“The short answer is that we were losing more money being open than we are being closed,” said Regal’s chief marketing officer Ken Thewes in an email. “Not all locations are allowed to open, and studios are withholding/delaying their biggest movies, so there’s limited consumer interest where we are open. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg issue.”

Many small theaters are in the same position. Data from Statista shows the number of indoor movie theaters in the United States has declined by 21% in the past 20 years. Teigum said her hometown theater, which was already talking about closing before the pandemic, will likely stay closed.

Layoffs are another issue.

“It hits all of us,” Peterson said.

The Brookings theater company, which also runs the theater in Pierre, is down 63% in employees, having gone from 81 people before the pandemic to only 30 part-time staff, despite them being open for business.

“It’s been just devastating,” Frager said of the pandemic. “We were getting it from both ways. We had the community that was cautious about coming to a movie theater, and along with that, a lack of product — it was just a perfect reason not to go to movies.”

As theater owners, Peterson and Frager understand the position film companies are in. Many can’t afford to advertise their films right now, and the uncertainty in releasing poses another issue. Other studios continue to push back release dates, and some are seeking to recoup losses by turning to streaming.

“Film companies have to stay in business — I get that they have to make those decisions,” Frager said.

Still, theater companies do not view streaming as a major threat to the business, which was the case even before the pandemic.

Since television shows make up a large percentage of streaming content, the impact has been greater on network and cable than it has been on the movie theater industry. According to an article from CNBC, Netflix typically offers a “cost-plus” model for TV shows with the standard commission being 30% plus production costs.

Katie Sorenson, a junior double major in public relations and communication studies, is one who prefers streaming services like Netflix because she would rather watch something shorter.

“It kind of runs in my family that we don’t really watch movies very often,” said Sorenson. “And I do enjoy, more so, that Netflix has shorter shows.”

For films, while heading directly to streaming means immediate cash for studios, many films have more opportunity to profit by theatrical releases. Thewes explains it makes more sense financially for a $100 million blockbuster film to be released in theaters first, since films with theatrical releases are often sold to streaming services not long after the fact, which maximizes its revenue.

Another article from CNBC uses Marvel’s “Black Widow” as an example, which cost between $150 million and $200 million to produce. Such a film could bring in anywhere from $750 million to $1 billion at the global box office.

“Some movies are fine for streaming and some are made for the big screen,” he said. “‘Avengers: Endgame’ was a much different experience when viewed … at a movie theatre versus watching on your phone or TV.”

On the other side of things, the pandemic has given smaller-budget, independent films, which typically have more success with direct-to-streaming, a chance at a theatrical release, such as was the case with “The Broken Hearts Gallery.”

In Sorenson’s experience, she would only go to the theaters if there was a really good movie, but this also is congruent with one of the trends of moviegoers: their irregularity in going. While the “hardcore moviegoer” numbers are dwindling, there are more occasional moviegoers making up for the loss in terms of revenue.

Occasional moviegoers like Sorenson and Noltner who see films less than once a month made up 40% of U.S. audiences in 2019, according to Statista, whereas only 14% of people frequented the theater more than once a month. The other 46% of patrons go to a movie theater once a year or less.

“I didn’t go on a regular basis, so it was almost like a treat,” Noltner said.

According to Statista, the number of movie tickets sold in the U.S. and Canada was highest in 2002 at 1.58 billion, a number that has been on a steady decline since. In 2018, 1.31 billion tickets were sold, and in 2019, the number was 1.24 billion.

Despite attendance being on the decline, box-office revenues have been rising.

The domestic box office hit an all-time record of $11.9 billion in 2018, with films such as “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Black Panther,” “A Star is Born” and “A Quiet Place” released that year. The global box office hit an all-time record in 2019 with a total of $42.2 billion, a year that also holds the third highest domestic record at $11.3 billion. That year saw “Avengers: Endgame,” “Toy Story 4,” “Joker” and “Frozen II.”

This year was set to be another big year, with releases such as “Wonder Woman 1984,” “Black Widow,” “Coming 2 America” and “Tenet.”

“We were excited about our future, especially after the first of the year,” Frager said. “It was extra disappointing that COVID happened, because we really thought 2020 was going to be a big year for us.”

While the pandemic leaves many industries struggling, there is hope for the future.

“I think we’re going to see an uptick in box office ticket sales … and then it’s probably going to level off a bit after that,” said Rocky Dailey, an SDSU professor who teaches film classes. He says it’s the experience people have been missing out on over the past six months that will bring them back to the theaters, along with the new releases.

“I look forward to it,” Peterson said. “I think the vaccine will be here, and I think that the people will feel comfortable.”

West Mall 7, for example, is hoping to bring in more patrons with the addition of beer sales in their concessions. Frager figured the pandemic was the perfect time to reapply for a malt-beverage license from the Sioux Falls City Council because beer sales could boost business.

“We want to give our adult moviegoers a different option, and potentially bring in some patrons that maybe wouldn’t come to this theater otherwise,” Frager said.

His goal is to start selling before Thanksgiving and then start to see a comeback, but more importantly, the Sioux Falls company wants people to feel safe coming to the movies.

Several SDSU students are excited for that day. Peters even said the pandemic has had a positive impact on her desire to see a film in theaters.

“[It’s] definitely something I’m going to try and work into my schedule more, because I remembered how much I enjoy going to the movies,” Peters said. “You can watch anything at home, but there’s just something, a different feeling you get, being in a movie theater and seeing it on a big screen. Having big surround sound, all dark, it’s an experience really, not just a movie.”

Dailey said the movie theater industry has endured many challenges in its existence, when the first films were simply people walking out of a factory.

“And even then, there were people who said it was a fad,” he said.

Then, it was sound that was a challenge for the theaters, then television, then VCR, then streaming. But the experience of a theater is a form of escapism, as Dailey calls it, and an event bigger than life, something a pandemic isn’t going to change.

“They’re going to survive,” Dailey said. “They’re just going to look different.”