SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — South Kingstown Cinema 8 has opened for business — at least on Fridays and Saturdays — as the coronavirus effects cripple the movie industry, shuttered indoor theaters and has even prompted Walmart to open temporary drive-in theaters.
While connoisseurs of the indoor theater environment are eagerly awaiting the return of first-run movies, need may go unsatisfied for a while, says Kristina Hersey, South Kingstown Cinema 8 general manager.
“Right now, there’s just no reliable time schedule for first run movies,” she said, noting that even the soon-to-be-released film, “Tenet,” with John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, was removed from its August 12 airing at the theater.
“It is delayed indefinitely. We just got that news a little while ago,” she said earlier this week about the quick-changing agility theaters need to have in a COVID-19 environment. Just days earlier she expected it to open mid-August and was planning for it.
Instead, the theater will continue to rely on a stable of movies — including “Ironman” and the Harry Potter series — oldies, but goodies, she said, as it attempts to acclimate patrons to the indoor environment that many people have been resisting, whether at restaurants, stores or other close-gathering places.
The same goes with theater operations, which started up July 4, with a Thursday through Sunday schedule, but was modified when small crowds came just for the six of its eight auditoriums that it has opened.
It’s a different world inside those dark rooms where alternate versions of reality and life itself flicker for a few hours and take watchers away from the doldrums of everyday life.
For instance, Hersey explained, at South Kingstown Cinema 8 the capacity is cut to just 50 percent of normal attendance. Customers are asked the now-routine COVID-19 questions about fevers, contact with those having the virus and other symptoms.
In terms of room capacities cut, Hersey explained that the smallest auditorium seats at maximum about 85 and the full capacity has been cut to 45 while the largest can hold up to 181 and it is limited to 90 patrons.
All people must wear a mask when entering the building, visiting restrooms and leaving the building. They may remove them during the showing of a movie, she said.
Seating is limited to every other row and all patrons are asked to keep two seats between them and other patrons when sitting in the same row, she said.
There is constant sanitizing throughout the theater, including handrails, seats after performances, bathrooms, door handles and other places the those in the theater would touch, she said.
Concession attendants are required to wear masks and gloves at all times. Popcorn comes with a covering over the top and other protective measures are also taken at these food and drink stands.
“We’re not very busy, not even close” to bustle once found there, she said, attributing the slowness to overall public caution - as public messaging continues about avoiding large groups and wearing masks.
What is happening is South Kingstown is occurring in other theaters across the country.
About 1,300 domestic movie houses are currently open, including 293 drive-ins, according to data firm Comscore as reported in the Los Angeles Times.
But the vast majority of the country’s nearly 5,550 indoor theaters remain shuttered, and the recent surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in multiple states has postponed what was already expected to be a slow recovery.
While drive-ins are doing brisk business, indoor theaters are struggling to draw audiences because of a lack of new Hollywood films due to potential lackluster box office sales that could ruin the potential profit for these multi-million-dollar creations.
The latest survey of U.S. adults by Morning Consult shows that just 23 percent of respondents would feel comfortable going to the movies now. It polled about 2,000 people June 9-11 for the survey, according to Investors Business Daily.
Based on what they know about the coronavirus pandemic, some 32 percent of respondents predict they will be comfortable going to movie theaters in the next two to three months.
Data from Screen Engine/ASI indicates that 13 percent of frequent moviegoers say they plan to return to theaters right away, no matter what’s playing, while 29 percent said they will go when there’s a movie they’re interested in.
Still, 18 percent said they plan to wait until the pandemic is completely over. Frequent moviegoers are those who go six or more times a year, the firm said.
Meanwhile, drive-in movie theaters, the symbol of a bygone era before cellphones and constant distraction, are suddenly reemerging as a popular form of entertainment during the coronavirus crisis, according to Axios.
The trend and analysis website reported that even through indoor movie theaters are closed, people still crave entertainment and a chance to get out of their houses. Watching a movie from the safety of a car is the next best thing.
Earlier this month, Walmart announced a partnership with Tribeca Enterprises, which hosts the annual Tribeca Film Festival, to convert 160 store locations into makeshift drive-in movie theaters.
Walmart did not respond to inquiries about whether any drive-ins would be opened at its supercenters near or in South County. The nearest drive-in theater locally is Misquamicut Drive-In, 316 Atlantic Ave., Westerly.
Walmart did say, though, that these will be safe and socially distanced drive-in events. It will air films that coincide with the Tribeca summer series lineup and that screenings will feature appearances from stars as well as concessions delivered to customer vehicles.
Movie theaters have been at the center of the debate about reopening, and for good reason.
The sustained closures are taking a huge bite out of the theatrical movie business, effectively quashing the traditional summer box office season that normally accounts for 40 percent of annual ticket sales, according to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times.
Wedbush Securities estimates that the North American box office will total $4.4 billion in 2020, down 61 percent from last year. (In 2019, box office revenue was $11.4 billion, a 4 percent dip from the prior year), the report noted.
Box office revenue reached $11.4 billion in the U.S. last year, the second-highest total ever, powering entertainment giant Disney to massive revenue and bolstering the bottom lines of more than a dozen other firms, according to The Washington Post.
But equally important, movie theaters could serve as a key tool to sew together the frayed bonds of public life.
With hundreds of millions of Americans isolated in their homes for nearly four months — and with politics fragmenting them even further — movie theaters represent a hope, however flawed, of uniting people in a common experience, industry observers said.
In South Kingstown, Kristina Hersey agreed, but said she also doesn’t want to pressure customers to return, and offered a message to loyal patrons.
“We miss you. We hope you feel safe and secure in our abilities and our theater when you are ready to come back,” she said.