Twenty-three moviegoers filed into the State Theatre in Washington, Iowa, on Oct. 2 — hardly a crowd, but one of the busier Friday nights the cinema has had since reopening in late May. Ushers in masks escorted the guests to their chairs, careful to seat them at least 6 feet away from one another. Then, the lights dimmed, the gold curtain over the cinema’s single screen rose, and the film began — just as it has for more than 120 years.
The State Theatre, located in a rural community about 30 miles outside of Iowa City, is the oldest continually operating movie theater in the world. It has faced threats to its survival before, but none quite like the coronavirus pandemic, which has made customers wary of indoor public spaces, and Hollywood wary of releasing new films that might entice audiences to come back in the first place.
While theaters, which closed from coast to coast in March due to the virus, were permitted to reopen in Iowa at half-capacity over Memorial Day weekend, attendance at the State Theatre’s approximately 300-seat auditorium has been sparse.
“We haven’t had any titles that would even warrant having 75 people there, let alone 150,” said Russell Vannorsdel, vice president of Fridley Theatres, which owns and operates the State Theatre, along with 17 other theaters in Iowa and Nebraska. “It is a struggle.”
The hardships extend beyond small theaters. Cineworld, the parent company of Regal Cinemas, announced Monday that it would temporarily close all of Regal’s 536 locations in the United States. The decision came days after MGM and Universal again delayed the release of “No Time to Die” until April 2021, making the new James Bond film the latest tentpole movie that Hollywood studios have pushed beyond this year. (Universal Pictures is a unit of NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.)
“It’s kind of at a crisis point.”
Patrick Corcoran, National Association of Theatre Owners
“It’s kind of at a crisis point,” said Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer at the National Association of Theatre Owners, the largest movie theater trade association in the world. He added that a recent survey of the association’s members found that 69 percent of small- and mid-size companies would not be able to keep their doors open through the end of the year without new movies, federal relief or a combination of both.
The State Theatre has enough in its coffers to stay open at least through January, and the cinema has been exploring new ways to stay afloat, absent aid or an injection of fresh films, Vannorsdel said.
When it first closed, the cinema began selling curbside popcorn so locals could enjoy movie popcorn to-go; the first weekend, it sold more than 300 large buckets of popcorn at $6.25 each, Vannorsdel said. Now that it has reopened, the State Theatre is offering private cinema rentals for small groups of viewers or video gamers.
The theater’s biggest challenge has been figuring out what to show on its sole screen. Family-oriented movies generally perform better, so the cinema initially passed on Christopher Nolan’s science-fiction thriller “Tenet,” a Labor Day release that had been heralded as the film that would bring customers back to the movies. (Instead, it was greeted with tepid sales nationwide, and when the State Theatre later screened it for a couple of weeks, it brought in a meager eight people on a Friday night, Vannorsdel said.)
The movie that has done best during the pandemic is Disney’s 1993 Halloween classic, “Hocus Pocus,” the film that attracted about two dozen audience members last Friday. In subsequent showings later in the weekend, more than 100 others bought tickets for it, too.
But repertory titles can only give the State Theatre’s box office so much of a bump, especially because tickets for such movies are sold at a discounted price of $4 for adults and $3 for children, instead of the regular price of $7 and $5.
“We desperately need new Hollywood product,” Vannorsdel said.
That may not happen for a while. While cinemas have been allowed to reopen in nearly all states with varying restrictions, New York, one of the most important box office markets, has kept them closed, causing a cascade effect throughout the entire industry as studios reconsider releasing new films without theaters open in a top revenue area.
“I feel confident that we can make it till the end of the year. Past that? I don’t know.”
At the State Theatre, year-over-year revenues have been down about 70 percent since it reopened, while Fridley Theatres’ as a whole are down more than 85 percent since reopening.
“It’s disappointing that New York and California can ultimately dictate if a theater in Iowa will go bankrupt or not, but it is now fact. We are to that point,” Vannorsdel said. “I feel confident that we can make it till the end of the year. Past that? I don’t know.”
‘It’s persevered through all this’
If the State Theatre were to close, it would be devastating to the community, said Sarah Grunewaldt, executive director of Main Street Washington, a local nonprofit that uses historic preservation as an economic development tool. The theater and its gleaming marquee are one of the first sights as you enter Washington’s downtown area, and the aroma of popcorn wafts down the block, she said.
“Going to the movies is a treat, and our theater is really lovely,” Grunewaldt said. “It has this grandiose feel. You are transported into this kind of time-forgotten place.”
The theater opened in 1897 and charged as little 15 cents for a ticket, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Prior to becoming a movie theater, it had been an opera house.
Its history has not been without difficulties. In 2010, a fire in the projection room closed the theater for months.
There have been other times when its survival was uncertain, including the Great Depression and through changes to the motion picture industry, such as the advent of television, then color television, then streaming services, Vannorsdel said.
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This time, the challenge is outlasting a virus that has upended everything. The State Theatre has committed to keeping all its salaried employees, while also taking on new costs: providing masks and optional face shields for workers; installing plexiglass dividers at the box office and concession stand; and disinfecting auditorium seats, cupholders and arm rests in between movie showings.
“It’s persevered through all this and I believe we will still persevere through the pandemic, but we need movies to do it,” Vannorsdel said. “In lieu of movies, we need support.”
“Theaters will always be around,” he added. “But there is a possibility that there is going to be less of them, and that’s sad.”