To say the pandemic has been unkind to movie theaters would be the understatement of the year, maybe of the decade. In normal times, movie theaters are a regular part of life. New films come out every Friday, and you get more popcorn than you can actually finish in one sitting. It's something lots of folks have missed for the last year.
But with headlines that "Godzilla vs. Kong" had the best opening weekend during the pandemic (more than $30 million and still going), we decided to check in with some Arkansas movie theater owners/managers and pick their brains about what they see coming down the pike.
Scott Gordon is the general/food and beverage manager for Skylight Cinema in Bentonville. It's an independent dine-in cinema that has had ties to the Bentonville Film Festival in previous years.
He described the pandemic's impact on Skylight Cinema as catastrophic.
"The pandemic was devastating to the entire industry, and we were no exception," he said. "We were closed for close to six months, and that wasn't necessarily government mandated."
Although the theater had the option to reopen in summer 2020, there weren't any new films coming out. It's hard to get folks into the theater without new movies to show. That's part of the deal: New releases every week.
"[It] made operating extremely challenging from a financial perspective," Gordon said.
Fast-forward to present day, and Skylight Cinema is seeing great sales with "Godzilla vs. Kong."
"We've had several sellout shows of that film. We operate in an incredibly supportive community, and people are chomping at the bit to get out of their homes and get back to some sense of normal life," the manager said.
Gordon said he felt reassured about the theater's relevance with those sellout shows.
And while he confirmed his staff can't wait for things to get back to normal, until then, they're all doing their best to keep moviegoers safe during the pandemic.
"We carry a significant responsibility as a member of the greater Northwest Arkansas community to limit the impact of covid-19, and we take that very seriously," he said.
With recent news Pacific Theaters won't be reopening, and Alamo Drafthouse having filed for bankruptcy, some might wonder how Skylight Cinema's potential rebound might differ from other chains in the area, like AMC and Malco.
The manager said their situation is a little more unique. For starters, the business offers dinner and a movie with full dine-in services. Then there's the fact that they're independently owned and have just one location to focus on.
"[We] have been able to tighten our belt in a way that larger chains have not, so we expect to continue business as usual and recovery from the pandemic more easily than larger chains," Gordon said.
Looking forward, Skylight Cinema's No. 1 goal is to return to full occupancy in a way that keeps its staff and community safe. And while Gordon said there's no concrete timeline for that, he did say it's possible the theater industry could see a significant rebound and return to business as usual by fall or winter.
"We are looking forward to an exciting summer of blockbusters that lead us to a great return to the movies later this year," he said.
The primary thing folks at Skylight Cinema want movie lovers to know is the theater's open for business, and they're doing all they can to keep things clean and safe. Combine that with increased vaccination rates and new movies, and it might just be a great time for folks in Northwest Arkansas to return to the movies.
Matt Smith had a similar message about his theaters in Little Rock, Hot Springs, Cabot, Searcy and Batesville. And while he described 2019 as the best year he ever had, 2020 was unsurprisingly the worst. Talk about feast and famine.
Smith said his theaters were forced to close for eight weeks when the pandemic began, but they've been open again since May 18, 2020.
Like Gordon, Smith said the lack of new movies was a big challenge for his businesses. They were limited to running library titles and classics.
"That's all we had on the screen," he said.
So, to survive, Smith had to innovate, with discounted tickets on certain days and deals at the concession stand. His theaters offered curbside concession pickup for folks who were craving movie theater popcorn and other snacks. They also hosted private events.
Folks were excited to see his theaters open.
"The number of customers that were coming out were so happy and thankful that they had something to do outside the house," the owner said.
When looking toward the future, Smith must need sunglasses because the way he described it was exceedingly bright. He said there's 18 months of blockbuster films available, and when they start coming out, woo doggie!
"When they open those floodgates, it's going to be astronomical. The box office of 2022 and 2023 will be stunning. There's going to be something you want to see at a theater every Friday for a year and a half straight," he said.
While some analysts might think the pandemic officially killed cinema and hastened a streaming supremacy, Smith refutes that wholeheartedly.
"You can't make 'Avengers' and put that amount of money into that film and not release that film theatrically. It doesn't work. You're ruining your intellectual property," he said.
He then listed all the things people thought would kill movie theaters but didn't, things like cable television, VHS, pay per view and more.
But after everything covid-19 has thrown at his business, Smith showed plenty of confidence for the future.
"I was better prepared for this than most. Nobody was prepared for covid-19, but I had been in this business a lifetime. I've made very conservative decisions," he said. "I've got to see how it shakes out going forward, but I'm not going anywhere."
Like Gordon, he mentioned third or fourth quarter this year as a good rebound point.
New movies are coming out again. As evidenced by the box office for "Godzilla vs. Kong," once folks get vaccinated, they seem fine with plopping into a movie theater recliner to watch the big screen for a couple hours.
As the year marches forward, Gordon and Smith will likely keep their eyes on those later quarters to see if their predicted rebounds manifest.
10 To Anticipate
Here are 10 movies to keep an eye on and see on the biggest screen you can find.
“The Dry” (May 21). Based on a wonderfully atmospheric novel by Jane Harper, Robert Connolly’s film stars Eric Bana as an Australian federal agent who reluctantly agrees to investigate a crime in his hometown.
“A Quiet Place Part II” (May 28). The sequel to John Krasinski’s very effective horror movie features a couple who must fend off apocalyptic monsters who are triggered by sound.
“Cruella” (May 28, also streaming on Disney+ Premier Access). Do we really need an origin story for “101 Dalmatians” villain Cruella de Vil? Apparently we do! Two always-splendid Emmas — Stone and Thompson — appear in this live-action Disney comedy.
“Vivo” (June 4). It’s the Summer of Lin-Manuel Miranda at the multiplexes! First up: this animated family comedy about an adventurous kinkajou who travels from Havana to Miami.
“In the Heights” (June 11, also streaming on HBO Max). See above! A year after it was originally scheduled to be in theaters, the film of Miranda’s hit Broadway musical about a Washington Heights bodega owner is finally hitting the multiplexes.
“F9” (June 25). Dwayne Johnson may have left this fast-driving, insanely fun franchise, but Vin Diesel, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez and the rest of the gang return — along with Helen Mirren, who according to the trailer gets her own car this time.
“Black Widow” (July 9, also streaming on Disney+ Premier Access). The 24th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has at its center one Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), a former KGB assassin and present Avenger; it takes place after the events of “Captain America: Civil War.”
“Cinderella” (July 16). Billy Porter as Fairy Godmother? Sign me up. This musical version of the familiar fairy tale also stars recording artist Camila Cabello (in her first feature film) and Idina Menzel as her wicked stepmother.
“Old” (July 23). M. Night Shyamalan’s output has been decidedly uneven since “The Sixth Sense,” but what the heck, we’ve all been missing movies so let’s give this one a go. Gael Garcia Bernal and Vicky Krieps (“Phantom Thread”) play a couple who are horrified when their children begin rapidly aging on a remote tropical beach.
“Respect” (Aug. 13). Jennifer Hudson was personally chosen by Aretha Franklin, years before the Queen of Soul’s death in 2018, to play her as a young woman in this biopic.
— Moira Macdonald
The Seattle Times