When Drew Kaza heard recently that Oregon had reversed its ban on eating and drinking inside movie theaters, he rejoiced.
“In a word, hallelujah,” he laughed.
The change brought him one step closer to reopening his four-screen theater in Central Oregon, the Sisters Movie House.
“It’s the concessions that really allow us to be an operating, profitable business,” he said.
As the risk of getting COVID-19 decreased around the state in February, 20 counties shed their “extreme risk” designations. That allows most of Oregon’s movie theaters to reopen, with limits — the smaller of 25% occupancy or 50 people in “high risk” counties, and 50% occupancy or 100 people in “moderate risk” counties.
Some movie houses, such as Portland’s Living Room Theaters, have already opened their doors or soon plan to. But other theaters have pumped the brakes, still concerned about the spread of COVID-19, or about the economic viability of opening now, or both.
The state’s ban on eating and drinking inside theaters, regardless of county risk level, was one financial obstacle. That’s because theaters pocket far more of the money spent on popcorn and drinks than on movie tickets. Roughly half the cost of each ticket goes back to movie distributors — and even more if a film is a blockbuster.
So, Oregon’s decision to allow concessions in all but “extreme risk” counties is big for cinema owners. The updated guidance requires moviegoers to put their masks back on during pauses in eating or drinking. Theaters selling concessions inside are also required to ensure adequate ventilation, with a recommended three to six air changes per hour.
But even though the Sisters Movie House has been closed for almost one year, Kaza is not reopening yet. He’d like to see more people allowed in the seats and more films in the pipeline.
When asked to describe the currently available movies in one word, he instead responded with three:
“Old and small.”
‘We have to have something to sell’
The Sandy Cinema is the only movie theater in Sandy.
For a few hours, every Friday and Saturday, the theater sells concessions to go from its main ticket window. Popcorn and soda sales bring in a little money to pay for utilities while the building stands empty.
Even though Clackamas County’s COVID-19 risk levels fell from “extreme” to “high” to “moderate” in February, theater owner Elie Kassab plans to stay shut for now. He’s wary of the coronavirus and its variants, and he doesn’t think he can make money from the films currently in distribution.
“We have to have something to sell,” he said. “And the product that’s available right now is not very good.”
Major studios have postponed big releases during the pandemic. They’re eyeing markets such as New York and Los Angeles to see when the biggest audiences return. In that sense, the fate of some Oregon theaters is tied to the suppression of COVID-19 in the nation’s biggest cities.
In the meantime, from the perspective of theater operators, pickings are slim.
“There’s nothing wrong with indie films,” said Marina Gephart, the media specialist with Kassab’s company, Prestige Theaters.
“But when it’s 90 to 100% indie films that nobody’s really heard of …” she said. “For our small communities, the movies that are really successful are family movies or franchises that people know really well.”
Prestige Theaters also owns movie theaters in Independence, Oregon, and Battle Ground, Washington, both of which reopened last year, only to shut down again.
That’s exactly what Jeremy Longstreet, owner of Portland’s St. Johns Twin Cinema and Pub, doesn’t want. When he heard theaters in Multnomah County could reopen at 25% occupancy in mid-February, he didn’t jump.
“I thought about it for about two seconds. There’s no way,” he said, sitting in his dimly lit theater surrounded by empty red chairs. “I wouldn’t even know how to bring people back into the cinema.”
Like many theater owners, Longstreet is waiting for the U.S. Small Business Administration to launch an emergency grant program for shuttered venues like his. “It would mean everything,” he said. “It would mean that, hey, there’s a future.”
The federal government awarded $15 billion to the program at the end of 2020, but the application has yet to be posted.
Meanwhile, reopening doesn’t feel safe to Longstreet until more people get vaccinated. He described a Catch-22:
He thinks the current films aren’t strong enough to open for. But the prospect of a popular film worries him too.
“Say if it’s a big blockbuster movie that would fill every seat. That’s scary to me,” he said.
As theaters reopen, they face increased competition — from your living room.
In normal times, movie studios would observe a certain cushion — often about 90 days — for films to play in theaters before people can watch them at home.
But the pandemic has upended that, sometimes shrinking theaters’ exclusive access to movies to a matter of days or even tossing it all together.
“It’s all over the place. It’s pandemic rules, which means there are no rules,” said Patrick Corcoran with the National Association of Theater Owners.
In fact, every Warner Bros. movie released in theaters in 2021 is premiering on HBO Max the very same day.
So, when the operators of the Sandy Cinema looked at the list of upcoming releases, they saw another reason to wait ...
… past March 5, when “Raya and the Last Dragon” is going to theaters and straight to Disney+.
… past March 31, when “Godzilla vs Kong” is going to theaters and straight to HBO Max.
… and past April 16, when “Mortal Kombat” is too.
“The next big theatrical exclusive title is Disney’s “Black Widow” on May 7,” said Gephart. Sandy Cinema is planning to be open for that, though the release date could still change.
At the Sisters Movie House, Kaza is too.
“That’s a big film to kick off the summer season,” he said of the latest Marvel superheroes flick starring Scarlett Johansson. “Summer starts in May, as far as Hollywood is concerned.”
And with a backlog of films coming down the pike, he expects business to soar as the pandemic wanes.