Will Congress ‘Save Your Cinema?’

Friday, August 7, 2020

The Coronavirus pandemic has put movie theaters across the country at risk of going dark for good, raising concerns from Hollywood to main street Storm Lake.

“From small independent screens to nationwide exhibitors, local theaters employ over 150,000 people and have formed a cornerstone of the American experience for generations,” Storm Lake United said in a recent email.

“Without swift action from Congress our favorite theaters could close forever, depriving audiences of the magic of movies for years to come,” according to the message, which encourages the public to speak out for the local Vista 3 Theater in Storm Lake by signing the online petition at saveyourcinema.com.

The petition calls for Congress to pass the RESTART Act that would allow forgivable seven-year loans to cover six months of lost income, and implement additional relief measures specifically for movie theaters.

Like other theaters, the Vista 3 in Storm Lake was forced to shut down in mid-March, early in the pandemic, and a second time after a wave of Buena Vista County COVID-19 cases hit locally when the rest of the state was reopening.

After absorbing months of lost income, the Storm Lake theater has reopened, but is showing films from the past as Hollywood has delayed releasing many of the movies that were expected for the summer of 2020. Offerings this week in Storm Lake include Field of Dreams, Jurassic Park and Shrek.

“Movie theaters are integral to the social, cultural, and economic life of our communities. In addition to being community gathering places, theaters employ so many vulnerable individuals underrepresented in the workforce, including young people and people with disabilities,” the petition reads.

Fridley Theatres, owner of the Vista 3 and 17 other Iowa theaters, has also used social media to encourage local movie fans to sign the petition form.

The “Save the Cinema” movement is of “massive importance,” says Russell A. Vannorsdel, vice president of Fridley Theatres.

“We’re a family-owned Iowa company, a mid-size operation on the movie circuit. Obviously, theaters like ours have faced forced closure and have been unable to operate - a lot of theaters around the country are still unable to operate. We’re having to show old movies - the ability for any level of income that’s sustainable is basically nonexistent.”

Theater problems are compounded as people still have some fear of going out into public places. “It’s a struggle in BV County, people are understandably a little hesitant to go out after the heavy level of cases there a few weeks back,” Vannorsdel said.

Fridley Theaters is actively asking guests and employees to sign the Save the Cinemas petition to help keep theaters like Storm Lake’s operating. “We’ve continued to pay salaried staff and provide their insurance throughout the pandemic - that money is gone,” he said. “As a company we had put cash aside for rainy days, but lately we had been reinvesting in some of our locations, and our cash reserve was lower when the pandemic hit. Our reserve is now depleted. We’re trying to be open and employ our staff and allow people the opportunity for entertainment, but to do it on our own we are having to ask ourselves whether we are losing more money being closed or open. To be honest, right now it is close to a wash.”

The movie industry won’t be able to continue indefinitely in its current state, without assistance, he feels.

“Hollywood continues to move back release dates on new movies. We understand that - they can’t open a multimillion-dollar major movie for just Iowa, they are going to wait until all the big market theaters in the major metropolitan areas around the country are going,” Vannorsdel said.

While a national theaters organization is lobbying Hollywood to begin releasing the completed movies to help save the theaters, even that won’t be enough.

“We are looking forward to new product certainly, but the truth is that we will still be in a pandemic when they start coming out. We will need to be operating with social distancing and limiting capacity at probably 50 percent, so revenue is going to continue to be a significant struggle.”

Will there be an audience when movies come back? The Fridley Theater executive has mixed feelings.

“I think people are clambering to get out and do things again. The beautiful thing about movies is that they take you away from the real world for a two-hour escape from reality - and that is more important than ever before. However, during months of quarantine, people have created new habits and activities in the home, and we don’t know how that will impact things like movies and live music.”

Still, it’s far from time to write an obituary for the business.

Before the pandemic, global box office sales were strong, the Fridley VP said, though year-to-year performance depends heavily on the quality of movies Hollywood cranks out.

“Movie theaters have always been able to persevere. They said talkies would kill theaters, then that TV, VCR, Netflix, DVD and whatever else comes along would kill theaters. Bottom line, people still want a night out. The social aspect matters,” Vannorsdel said.

Storm Lake in particular has always strongly supported movies and its theater, including buying popcorn curbside when Vista 3 couldn’t operate, he adds.

“Even before the pandemic, Storm Lake was one of the places we were particularly looking at to continue to promote the movie-going experience. We need to make the updates to modernize facilities, and Storm Lake is right up on top of the list. The facility is in dire need of an update.”

Ideally, the company would like to build a state-of-the-art multiplex “with perfect viewing dimensions and all the amenities.” The current site on Lake Avenue downtown can’t be expanded because it is surrounded by other businesses, Vannorsdel said. “We’re limited with only three screens, when Storm Lake could easily support five screens or more. At one point, the corner business next to us was available, and at the time, we didn’t get it bought. With the situation after the quarantine, most likely the logical approach would be to update the current Vista 3 footprint.”

That could involve bigger screens, surround sound equipment, luxury reclining seats and other upgrades.

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