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Blockbusters and beer. What movie theaters will be like in the future, thanks to COVID.

NJ.com logo NJ.com 7/9/2021 Caroline Fassett, nj.com
Tuesday, November, 10, 2020 - AMC Theatres, one of the biggest movie theater chains in New Jersey and the country, has permanently closed its location in Hamilton as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the industry. © Michael Mancuso/NJ Advance Media for NJ.com Tuesday, November, 10, 2020 - AMC Theatres, one of the biggest movie theater chains in New Jersey and the country, has permanently closed its location in Hamilton as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the industry.

A New Jersey resident who specializes in booking films for privately-owned theaters across the country did not receive a cent of profit over the last year.

“I struggled for a whole year without getting paid. It was very difficult,” said Rob Lawinski, owner of Brielle Cinemas. “But like my father said a long time ago, ‘Save it for a rainy day.’ And boy, did it rain.”

Lawinski works from his home in Wayne, where he books films for 55 theaters across the United States, including eight in New Jersey.

The decline of his business reflects the immeasurable toll taken on the movie theater industry across the Garden State and country as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief operating officer for the National Association of Theatre Owners, said in 2020 movie theaters experienced an 81% loss in revenue from a lack of ticket sales.

According to Joe Masher, chief communications officer for Bow Tie Cinemas and president of the New York chapter of NATO, the “irrevocable harm” inflicted upon the industry will “take a long time to dig out of.

a man standing in front of a sign: Owners Michael Sodano and Nancy Sabino at The ShowRoom movie theater in Asbury Park on Feb. 20, 2017. The company announced it would be closing both its theaters because of COVID-19. © Bobby Olivier/NJ Advance Media for NJ.com Owners Michael Sodano and Nancy Sabino at The ShowRoom movie theater in Asbury Park on Feb. 20, 2017. The company announced it would be closing both its theaters because of COVID-19.

“For 2020, our revenue was down over 95%,” Masher said. “And in 2021 so far, it’s getting better now that we’re getting reopened, but we’re still down 60 to 75% depending on the market.”

There are two Bow Tie Cinemas theaters remaining in New Jersey, one in Ridgewood and another in Millburn.

Throughout 2020, most theaters in New Jersey took in between 10% to 20% of the revenue received in 2019, according to Bob Piechota, the owner of Montgomery Cinemas and Hillsborough Cinemas and president of the New Jersey chapter of the National Association of Theatre Owners.

a view of a keyboard: NJ Advance Media spoke with multiple industry experts to explore how the movie theater industry will survive in the wake of the pandemic's incalculable toll upon it. © Bobby Olivier | NJ Advance Media/Bobby Olivier |NJ Advance Media NJ Advance Media spoke with multiple industry experts to explore how the movie theater industry will survive in the wake of the pandemic's incalculable toll upon it.

In July 2020, NATO and a group of movie theater chains including AMC, Cinemark, Regal Cinemas and Bow Tie Cinemas, sued Gov. Phil Murphy and Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli in federal court, calling New Jersey’s shutdown of theaters “neither fair nor reasonable.”

The lawsuit was dropped in September, when movie theaters were allowed to reopen at 25% capacity or for up to 150 theatergoers. Today, with vaccination rates high and the number of coronavirus cases continuing to fall, theaters have been allowed to reopen at full capacity in New Jersey — but not all of them have.

Only 63 of the 92 movie theaters in New Jersey have reopened, according to Piechota.

“Whether the remaining 29 theaters stay closed is really up to each individual owner,” Piechota said. “They range from single screen theaters to huge complexes.”

Hillsborough Cinemas, which screens commercial films, reopened on weekends and expanded its hours to seven days a week beginning Friday. Montgomery Cinemas, which screens art, independent and foreign films, has remained closed.

Piechota said the theater’s reopening is dependent upon whether or not it receives funding through the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant, created by the federal government for eligible businesses affected by the pandemic.

The precariousness of his situation mirrors that of Michael Sodano, co-owner of the Showroom Cinemas at both Bradley Beach and Asbury Park. Sodano originally announced back in September that neither of his theaters would reopen, but has since confirmed with NJ Advance Media that the announcements of these grants “changed everything.”

Now, “98%” of his decision to reopen the theaters is dependent upon when and if he receives this grant from the federal government.

“The general public doesn’t really understand how much it costs to run a movie theater,” he said. “And because we’ve been pretty much revenue-less for the past 15 months or so, we just don’t have the resources yet to hire people back, fill our coffers with supplies, pay our distributors the license fees they want, and mostly sustain the business for a good six months or so while the audiences find their way back to the cinemas.”

He added that other theater partners that have decided to reopen are “suffering even more” than they had been while closed.

“A few of them have said we made one of the best decisions by not opening and staying closed. And it’s really a matter of how fast you want to see your money disappear,” he said. “While we’re not making any revenue being closed, our expenses are more relatively fixed than they would be being open, struggling to find people to work for us, and really just struggling to stay alive.

“So we’re in desperate need of the federal funding we applied for.”

Piechota said that several theater owners have also chosen not to reopen due to ongoing struggles to meet rent payment obligations.

“Landlords can’t just forgive the rent. They can’t just say, ‘You’re closed, so you don’t have to pay any rent.’ They said, ‘Too bad, you still have to pay,’” Piechota said. “And even though you’re not using electric, you still have to pay electric bills ... because even if you don’t use it, you use it.

“Now since we’re coming out of it, things are changing,” he added. “But, we’ve got streaming.”

Throughout the pandemic, services for streaming movies from the safety of individuals’ homes spiked in popularity due to the widespread closure of theaters.

Some studios, like Disney, have even chosen to release their films exclusively on streaming platforms (Disney+) rather than in theaters.

“There’s no question the business has been impacted by streaming. Disney+, HBO, Peacock, Amazon — it all takes away from us, because people will just say ‘Hey, I’ll watch it at home,’” Lawinski said.

So, what does the convenience of streaming mean for the future of movie theaters?

Those involved in the film industry predicted immense changes, but not total disruption. Masher in particular emphasized that there will be an impending “renaissance” for theaters “once the New Year comes around.

“I think we’ll exceed pre-pandemic numbers once the movie calendar stabilizes ... There’s a lot of good product out there, and filmmakers make their movies to be shown on a big screen in a shared, communal experience atmosphere in a theater,” he said. “They don’t make them to be shown on a streaming service.”

In support of this belief, Masher noted that numerous major streaming services including Netflix, Amazon, and Apple have established their own theatrical divisions and could potentially emerge as major studios in the coming years.

“Netflix just released ‘Army of the Dead’ in theaters before it started streaming on Netflix, and they have a very robust schedule for 2022 of exclusive theatrical releases that will play in theaters before they start streaming on Netflix,” he said.

According to Masher, theaters will also receive a boost as films stop being released on streaming platforms the same day they’re released in theaters.

However, he predicted that the timetable in which these films are available outside of theaters will shift.

Pre-pandemic movies were exclusively available in theaters for approximately 75 days prior to being released on On Demand or various streaming services. Post-pandemic, Masher believes that this timeline will narrow to roughly 45 days.

“Theaters do most of their business in the first two to three weeks of a new movie, so adapting to a new model is what we’re going to have to do,” he said. “And it’s rare that movies last six, seven, eight weeks anymore. And if they do, it’s only because there’s not enough stuff around to sell to the rest of the screens. So I’m confident that the industry will be fine.

“We are in a rebound period now, and I really do believe that coming out of this horrific pandemic, people will seek out-of-home entertainment. And movies really still are the most affordable mode of out-of-home entertainment,” he added.

Beyond this shift in the way in which movies will be released and then re-released, the kinds of movies that will fill theaters in the near future will also drastically shift, according to Piechota.

Specifically, Piechota said that in approximately two years’ time, Blockbuster movies will exclusively be available in commercial movie theaters.

“Movies will come back to movie theaters and it will be just the big budget movies, the ‘Star Wars,’ the Marvel,” Piechota said. “I think the downfall with the industry is going to be the small movies, the art theaters, the little pictures that have to find themselves. Because if you make a $10 million movie, it’s going to cost you a fortune to release those in theaters.”

Instead of offering their films to movie theaters, the distributors for low-budget and independent films will likely sell the movies to popular streaming venues to guarantee their profitability, Piechota explained.

“Say the production was a $50 million production, and Netflix or Apple or Amazon comes along and says, ‘We’ll give you $100 million for it.’ They doubled their money and it was a lot cheaper to do that and a lot easier,” he said. “They got profit in comparison to releasing it, because maybe it wouldn’t have done that well.”

While agreeing that theaters have shown an increasing number of blockbusters and will likely continue to do so, Corcoran also envisioned mid-range budget movies continuing to be in theaters as a means of differentiating their titles from the thousands of others available on streaming services.

“There’s a future for those titles because there’s a vast amount of titles you have on streaming — so you have to direct your audience’s attention to it,” he said. “And one of the signals to them is it had a theatrical release, and there was conversation about that movie when it was in release.

“Knowing a movie was in movie theaters raises the perception of quality of what people want to watch,” he added.

Another immense change on the horizon is that over time, all theaters will offer more than just the standard soda and popcorn, folding seat experience, Piechota stated.

“I think the future is going to be luxury recliners ... and beer and wine,” he said. “It’s not going to be a steak dinner, but burgers, individual pizzas, salads, chicken sandwiches.”

His forecast is supported by statistics, as Corcoran added that average concession sales have spiked by about 60% to 70% at these types of theaters.

“One of the oldest clichés about a date night is dinner and a movie,” Corcoran said. “For years, you watched half of that revenue go somewhere else ... so there’s an opportunity to both capture that revenue but also provide a convenience and a service to the customers.”

Because less movies will be released in theaters, Piechota also predicted that large complexes with multiple screens will soon become obsolete.

“There’s no need to have a 24-screen complex anymore,” Piechota said. “That’s done. The overhead of operating it — and you don’t have as much content as you used to have, with the streaming services taking the smaller pictures.”

Small and independent art theaters are likely to suffer over the coming years, Piechota and Masher agreed. Masher in particular noted that many of these theaters have already begun screening commercial films to stay afloat.

“They’re not dedicating their screens exclusively to art movies anymore,” he said. “For instance, there’s a theater in Long Island right now that only ever showed art movies. After they reopened, they have a couple of independent films, but they’re also showing ‘A Quiet Place II’ and ‘Cruella.’”

Pre-pandemic, the Showtime Cinemas theaters in both Asbury Park and Bradley Beach were hotspots for independent films, Sodano stating that they were considered “the Angelika Cinema of the Jersey Shore.”

Sodano acknowledges that these types of films are now largely available on television and streaming services to the detriment of his art house cinemas. Because of this, he will consider adding more commercial material to each of his theaters if and when they reopen.

“The Bradley cinema was a little more commercial than the Asbury cinema, so that would certainly be one of our tools we would use to look to getting people back to the theater,” he said. “Our theaters were never the superhero movie screens, but we were playing more regular fare, more mainstream fare.”

Sodano added that if his businesses reopen, he would also potentially seek to incorporate “a lot of alternative entertainment” to drive people back to the theaters.

“Maybe there would be an increased amount of live events or talk backs, different types of specialty programming like art-specific films or biographies,” he said. “But without knowing when we’re going to open and the product calendar that’s going to be available to us, it’s still a little difficult to foresee that.”

Despite the numerous ongoing obstacles faced by independent cinemas, not all share the same fears of imminent closure. Nonprofit art theaters “stand a shot more so than any individual theater,” Piechota said.

“Most art theaters that are nonprofit have subscriptions, so people could donate money and become a member. They’re not collecting taxes ... And when you’re trying to operate a for-profit theater, you’re subject to all the taxes,” he explained. “And people can’t just become a member or give a donation, because that becomes a tax write-off for them.”

Still, regardless of what the future entails for movie theaters across New Jersey and beyond, people in the industry unanimously agree that they each one of them offers an experience that is unparalleled by anything else — and hence is more than worth preserving.

“I think we all at home will turn on the TV and we’re not really paying attention to what we’re watching; it’s there for company or background or you’re half-watching,” Corcoran said. “But in a movie theater, you can’t stop it; you can’t rewind; you are there for the ride.”

“You are enveloped in the darkness, enveloped in the big screen picture and the sound, and there’s nothing to distract you from the story,” Sodano echoed. “And that’s what watching a movie is all about.”

“People want to sit together and watch a movie and experience that together, and that can’t be done at home,” Masher said. “I don’t care how big your TV is or how good your sound system is. That experience cannot be replicated at home.”

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Caroline Fassett may be reached at cfassett@njadvancemedia.com.

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