Movie theaters, like all other businesses, have been forced to reckon with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. After spending the past decade desperately trying to fend off competition in the form of streaming and home theater setups, the pandemic has renewed claims that the theater industry is dead or dying. The postponement of almost every major studio release until 2021 has essentially made this a lost year for Hollywood. With Regal Cinemas closing all of its locations and considering bankruptcy due to its reliance on so-called “tentpole” movies, the future of the theater business seems far from encouraging. Representatives from the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and the Violet Crown shared their perspectives on what the present circumstances mean for theaters and theatergoers in Charlottesville and throughout the country.
Scott Flanagan, the Vice President of Operations for Cojeaux Cinemas — which operates Alamo’s Charlottesville location — was concerned that many in the Charlottesville area are unaware that the Alamo Drafthouse is open for business and are fearful of the risk inherent in attending the theater. Charlottesville’s other two movie theaters, Violet Crown and Regal, have remained closed since the early days of the pandemic, but Flanagan believed “[movie theaters are] actually safer than the grocery store.” Particularly given the popularity of Alamo’s new personal theater rental option — which allows customers to share a theater with only their trusted friends for $300 plus the price of tickets (food and beverage charges are included) — Flanagan believed that his theater was doing a fine job of minimizing risks and was frustrated that audiences remain wary of theaters given the lack of outbreaks traced back to them. While it is true that no outbreaks have been traced back to theaters — and public health officials have applauded the use of personal theater rentals to combat the coronavirus — officials are skeptical of regular theater usage and actually ranked theaters significantly more dangerous than grocery stores.
Flanagan also commented on the pandemic’s impact on studios. Because nearly every blockbuster movie that was slated for release in 2020 has been pushed back a year, he predicted 2021 “will be the year of the blockbuster.” Unlike most years, when studios release tentpole movies two or three weeks apart, the sheer number of major movies due for release in 2021 means they will have no option but to release them in close competition. According to Flanagan, “tentpoles and blockbusters are usually spread out so they don’t cannibalize each other, one every three or four weeks — but you’ll see more that are every other week.” While this may not be welcome news for the studios, movie theaters could have a field day, especially if public opinion changes on the relative safety of seeing movies in theaters.
Cameron Polson, the general manager of Charlottesville’s Violet Crown, also shared his experience during the pandemic. The Violet Crown is still closed, which has led the theater to lay off all of its employees, which Polson called “the most obvious thing we’ve struggled with.” However, the Violet Crown does intend to open back up in the same space, taking advantage of features like a similar theater rental program to the one currently being run by Alamo Drafthouse. “I think a lot of movie theaters are seeing that’s the safest way to do it — control how many people are going to be in public spaces at once,” Polson said. He added that closing the theaters had given Violet Crown the opportunity to invest in safety protocols such as adding ionizers to the HVAC units and investing in electrostatic sprayers — “we’re actively working on new protocols that allow us to offer the safest environment possible.”
While the future is uncertain for the Violet Crown, Polson recognized that its status as a home for arthouse and independent films could help it weather the storm of upheaval currently being caused by both the coronavirus and digital streaming services. He pointed out that movies such as “The Irishman” were already being released directly on Netflix, and the pandemic had only expanded the field of competition for leading films such as that one — although there is evidence to suggest that Netflix is losing money by not giving their big-budget movies significant theatrical releases, which may change things in the future. However, because the Violet Crown has “always made a big effort to get great arthouse and independent movies on the screen,” the current movement of blockbuster releases toward direct-to-streaming will likely “give [Violet Crown] more opportunity to fill out [its] programming with a great selection of somewhat unheard of films,” according to Polson.
While both Flanagan and Polson were understandably disappointed with the theater industry’s lack of success in the past year, they were equally optimistic about the future of moviegoing. Their evidence for consistent demand for watching movies in theaters was anecdotal, but it suggested an undeniable truth — although home theaters are improving and becoming more accessible with the advent of 4K and cheap widescreen televisions, there is no replacement for the experience of being in a theater. Particularly for comedy and horror movies, which rely on a shared lack of knowledge in the audience about what will happen next, the experience of watching a first-run movie at home pales in comparison to viewing it in the theater, with others. This has been a brutal year for the movie industry, but there are still glimmers of hope — both for those in the industry, and for those who simply love movies.