On a rainy day last week, 72 moviegoers visited the Park Plaza Cinema in Hilton Head Island, SC, to see Liam Neeson in “Honest Thief”. It was the largest single-day attendance the five-screen independent cinema had seen since reopening in August after a five-month closure. The feeling of celebration was short-lived. The next day, only 22 people showed up.
Park Plaza, like cinemas large and small across the country, has been wiped out by the pandemic. After its long shutdown, it implemented social distancing protocols and installed new air filtration systems. He tried things like curbside popcorn sales. But efforts have not been enough to offset the more general upward trends in cinema, namely that many people still don’t seem inclined to return to theaters in large numbers and that Hollywood, with no audiences to speak of, postponed most major releases until next year.
“We are an industry that is part of the fabric of America and it is disappearing,” said Lucie Mann, who owns and runs the theater with her husband, Larry. “If we don’t get help quickly, that will change forever.”
The pandemic has brought national theater chains like AMC to the brink of bankruptcy. He’s been just as carefree with establishments like the Manns, one of 602 independent owners in the United States with only one or two locations. Although they represent only 12 percent of the country’s total cinemas, these independent operations often take place in smaller communities, delivering films to communities sometimes overlooked by the big chains. After closing in March, Park Plaza received a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program in April for $ 47,000 to cover labor and overhead costs. That, plus a series of private events, supported the Manns throughout the summer.
Still, sales fell sharply, down 88% from last year. The Manns figured they had an idea to make up for some of that when they started offering special social distancing events in June. People could rent a theater for $ 100, bring their own DVDs, and invite a handful of friends.
Kris Ruffner, who visited the theater once a week before the pandemic, organized two such events. During one, she invited 20 friends to watch “Bridesmaids”.
“It was good,” Ms. Ruffner said, especially “at a time when no one could go and do anything. Park Plaza allows headquarters to be socially distanced, so none of my friends had a problem with that.
But someone complained, and in July, the state’s Commerce Department made contact, via the Sheriff’s Department, reminding the Manns that any film operation was considered non-essential.
The private gatherings therefore ceased and the financial situation of the theater became increasingly precarious. Last week, Mr. Mann told Ms. Mann that there was only $ 1,000 left in the bank.
“It becomes a crisis,” she said.
Ms. Mann, 61, is an architect by training and Mr. Mann, 67, a home builder. They bought the theater in 2010, a reboot after Ms. Mann’s homebuilding career dried up due to the recession. (Mr. Mann still does home renovations.) He wasn’t a keen movie buff either, but they took the leap when previous owners told them the business would “run on its own,” recalls. Mrs. Mann. This is not the case.
The couple devoted a lot of time, money and energy to renovating the old theater. In 2012, they spent $ 400,000 to replace old film projectors with digital projection and improve sound. In 2016, they ditched the 650 theater seats, opting for 250 oversized reclining leather seats that reduced capacity while helping to increase sales due to the premium experience.
The Manns, who had no formal cooking experience, expanded their food and drink offering (Ms. Mann’s flatbreads are very popular), introduced a sophisticated menu of wine and craft beers and even enlisted their pets, Antoinette and Abileene, two hairless Chinese crested dogs, to bring patrons to their seats and perform tricks to order. (Guests are also allowed to bring their own dogs, as long as they weigh less than 20 pounds.) Income has increased by around 15% year over year. The business was a success.
“Lucie made Park Plaza really cute,” said Linda Peterson, a financial analyst who lives on the island and often dons pajamas to attend the late show with her daughter. “And she has wine. My God, where can you drink wine while watching a movie? “
Today, few people stop for an adult drink and a movie. After the private events shutdown, Ms. Ruffner launched an online fundraiser for the theater and raised nearly $ 15,000. And Ms Peterson has started a petition, urging South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster to reopen Park Plaza, arguing that the boutique theater has limited capacity and all of its patrons wear masks inside. He collected nearly 2,000 signatures and allowed the Manns to meet with the governor. He authorized the theater to open that day.
“I was amazed to see the local support,” said Ms. Mann.
The Manns reopened on August 21 in anticipation of the release of Warner Bros. “Tenet.” But the film directed by Christopher Nolan only made $ 3,659 after performing in the theater for six weeks. No other new version has done much business either. Since Labor Day, every weekend at the national box office is down 90% from the year before, according to Franchise Entertainment Research, a company of box office analysts.
Now the studios are downsizing again and postponing the majority of their big releases to 2021. “Wonder Woman 1984,” due out on Christmas Day, is the only big-budget movie still on the 2020 schedule, but Mann are not so optimistic he will open this year.
“While all the other big movies were pushed back into April and July, we don’t see a single big movie in December with the big chains closed and New York and California not opening,” Ms. Mann said. “These two control the whole world in our industry.” (California has allowed theaters to open in San Francisco and San Diego counties, although they remain closed in the movie capital, Los Angeles.)
These days, Ms. Mann has resumed her private events, now charging $ 250 for theater rentals. On Saturday night, the local Italian-American club hosted a private party where 10 people stopped by for a screening of “Moonstruck”. She tried to broadcast the local high school soccer game on Saturday afternoon, but no one showed it. She was also unlucky last weekend when she booked Pixar’s “Coco” in an attempt to attract families, but the seats were left empty.
Mr. Mann spends his days on the phone trying to resurrect a Continuing Denial Small Business Administration disaster loan. And he asks for a new state subsidy. Last week, a customer wrote a check for $ 15,000 to the theater, which kept it up and running for a few more weeks while the Manns try to attract more customers. If the aid does not materialize – either in the form of federal funding, which seems unlikely given the political climate in Washington, or a decision by Hollywood studios to bring back some big movies in 2020, then they said they would only consider if theaters reopen in New York and Los Angeles – the Manns believe they will have to close by the end of the year.
“For a lot of people, Park Plaza is part of their experience while on vacation here,” Mr. Ruffner said, adding that if the theater were to close forever, “it would be a devastating loss.”
Ms. Mann is not afraid to reinvent herself. She did so in 2010 and is now well acquainted with the whims of the film exhibition business: reserving blockbusters for her out-of-town clientele in the summer and Thanksgiving, and turning her attention to sophisticated dishes from art-house during the off season. when the inhabitants dominate.
“I never knew anything about moviegoers,” she says. “But these are really cool people.”
But now she spends her nights awake asking questions she can’t answer, from how to persuade non-moviegoers to come to the theater to what happens to the fabric of culture if movie theaters disappear.
“If people don’t have entertainment, how is everyone in the economy supposed to survive when businesses shut down left and right?” Mrs. Mann said. “My intuition that the exhibition industry was in the midst of a revolution was correct. I just didn’t know it would go through an event like this.