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Colorado movie theaters that have reopened in recent months are struggling to generate business as the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In August, major theater chains like AMC, Cinemark and Regal reopened with reduced capacities and stringent new cleaning protocols after a five-month hiatus.

Local independent theater Kimball’s Peak Three followed suit.

But as major studios continue to push back release dates for marquee films and moviegoers remain tentative about returning to the box office, many theaters are having a hard time attracting customers; several are already having to readjust their plans.

Regal, for instance, reopened its Colorado theaters Aug. 21. But on Oct. 8, Cineworld, Regal’s parent company, suspended operations at all 536 of its United State theaters, citing an “increasingly challenging theatrical landscape” and sustained closures in key markets, according to a Cineworld news release.

Regal’s decision could be a sign of things to come for the industry, as consumer uncertainty looms and COVID-19 cases surge in most states.

PATRONS SLOW TO RETURN

Kimball Bayles, owner of Kimball’s Peak Three Theater, reopened his business in late August.

Like many theater owners, Bayles hoped that the premiere of the Christopher Nolan film, Tenet, would be the spark he needed to bring customers back.

But the crowds have been far short of a full house, even with capacity restricted to 40 percent occupancy.

“Business is so slow that we really don’t have to worry about social distancing,” Bayles said. “Our largest show [since reopening] in an auditorium of almost 200 seats, we had about 30 people.”

Kimball’s disappointing experience with Tenet was not unique. The sci-fi action thriller failed to find an audience, netting roughly $30 million domestically over its first two weeks.

In an August survey of 2,200 U.S. adults by market research company Morning Consult, 18 percent of respondents said they were likely to see a film at a traditional movie theater in the next month, compared to 74 percent who said such an outing would be unlikely.

But many of those who have returned to the movies, according to a recent survey by Cinemark, seem content with safety procedures.

Chanda Brashears, Cinemark vice president of investor and public relations, said with 85 percent of Cinemark’s theaters now reopened, customers have “made it clear they are excited to be back.”

“Ninety-seven percent of Cinemark moviegoers surveyed expressed satisfaction with Cinemark protecting their health and safety,” Brashears said.

And not every theater has struggled to attract new customers. 

Roadhouse Cinemas, a small, dine-in theater chain based in Arizona, opened its first Colorado location on North Nevada Avenue on Sept. 25.

Roadhouse has a full bar, restaurant and arcade attached to its theater and has been able to attract more customers than it would with movies alone.

“Pre-COVID we obviously expected much higher business levels,” said Scott Cassell, Roadhouse Cinemas director of operations. “But we are pleased so far.”

Cassell said although the Roadhouse experience is driven by its movies, many people come in to have drinks and play in the arcade, possibly staying to see a film.

For Kimball’s, Bayles said the sparse crowds were likely not worth the cost of being open.

“That was our hesitation when we reopened in August,” Bayles said. “Now I kind of regret that we did. Because it was easier for us to stay closed and just run really lean. Once you open, you open yourself back up to insurance and a bigger utility bill and payroll. So in retrospect, was it a good idea to open? Probably not. But I saw that surge of everybody reopening and I didn’t want it to look like we were done.”

A CLOG IN THE PIPELINE

Since movie theaters have reopened, the biggest challenge has been a dearth of their primary product — new movies.

Many major film studios have pushed back most, if not all of their top releases to 2021.

To supplement their offerings, theaters have been showing classics and timely favorites like Halloween movies, which many have showed throughout October.

But with so many streaming options available — many of which feature the same titles in theaters — it’s difficult to justify the trip and the ticket price, Bayles said.

“Disposable income is not necessarily at an all-time high,” Bayles said. “People are out of work and whole industries have been whacked. So maybe people don’t want to spend $20 to $30 going to a movie, or going down to watch a movie for $10 they could watch [with a subscription] on Netflix. It just doesn’t make much sense.”

Cassell said it has helped theaters that smaller film studios have been releasing some new movies.

“There are a number of small studios that have actually stepped up, thankfully, and made pictures available to us,” Cassell said. “So we’re planning to play some pretty good movies, but unfortunately, because they’re smaller studios, they don’t have the large marketing budgets to advertise.”

Without the Hollywood marketing machine, Cassell said, even movies with rave reviews and ratings on websites like Rotten Tomatoes may have trouble generating ticket sales.

And for Kimball’s, for which independent films are its bread and butter, the lack of major studio releases is creating more competition.

“You’ve got every theater out there competing for every film they release,” Bayles said. “A couple of the indy films we played recently would’ve never gone to megaplexes or larger theaters, but everybody needs films right now so they’re playing whatever they can get their hands on. So there’s stiff competition with kind of a limited audience.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Cassell said movie theaters could be in for a banner year whenever public health conditions improve, adding delayed studio releases could drop one after another and, after months of restrictions, many people will be itching for the experience.

“People want to get out,” Cassell said. “They are getting very impatient right now and are tired of staying home. And entertainment is a release for people. People need to be able to escape life.”

Cinemark’s Brashears said there are five considerations when thinking ahead to a more normalized industry.

“Those are the status of the virus, government restrictions, consumer sentiment, cleaning and safety protocols, and availability of new film content.”

Cassell said the biggest hurdles right now are capacity restrictions and the lack of new films.

“Once COVID is over, we fully expect to get back to what we wanted and expected to be doing,” Cassell said. “And we have no doubt that’s going to happen, it’s just a question of when.”

But theaters like Kimball’s might not be around by the time conditions improve.

Bayles said it’s unclear how long they can survive with current revenue, and they’re taking things week by week.

“I think it’s gonna be a while until things calm down,” Bayles said. “And by then, the small guys like me are going to be gone. We can sit it out a little bit, but as it pushes back more and more, it’s pretty difficult to ride it out. So I think you’re going to see a lot of small theaters just go.”

 

Reporter

Zach Hillstrom is a Colorado Springs native and graduate of Colorado State University-Pueblo. He has worked as a reporter for Southern Colorado print outlets since 2015.