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Facing threat to survival, theater owners ask ‘lame duck’ Congress for rescue

The Bay Theatre in Pacific Palisades.
The Bay Theatre in Pacific Palisades.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

With the COVID-19 pandemic threatening the survival of U.S. cinemas, the lobby representing theater companies on Monday called on Congress to pass a stimulus package that includes $15 billion in relief for independent entertainment venues.

“American movie theaters need help now,” said John Fithian, president and chief executive of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners in a statement. “Soon, a vaccine will allow our industry to return to normal, but without bipartisan action now in the lame-duck session of Congress, hundreds of movie theaters will not make it. Local communities across the nation are and will be permanently damaged.”

The Washington, D.C.-based trade group is pushing lawmakers to pass the so-called Save Our Stages relief plan as part of a larger economic stimulus package during Congress’s lame-duck session following the presidential election victory of Joe Biden over Donald Trump.

“We fear for their future.” That’s studios and directors’ message to Washington about the dire state of the movie theater industry.

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The Save Our Stages legislation, introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), would allow Small Business Administration grants equaling 45% of a venue’s 2019 revenue or $12 million, whichever is less. Venue operators also would be eligible for a second grant equal to 50% of the first award.

Save Our Stages was introduced as a $10-billion program to help venues such as live concert halls. It was later expanded to $15 billion in order to include movie theater operators.

Democrats and Republicans were unable to compromise on a new economic relief package before last week’s presidential election, which was called for Biden by media organizations on Saturday.

Theater owners have been hammered by the coronavirus crisis, which led to months of nationwide closures. Though most states have allowed movie houses to reopen, continued fears of the virus, capacity limits and a lack of new Hollywood movies have shrunk revenues. NATO has said that without federal relief or a sharp increase in attendance, 70% of small and midsized theaters could be forced to file for bankruptcy or go out of business.

A rise in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has made the situation more precarious for theater owners, which employ roughly 150,000. Spiking caseloads in Europe have led to the reclosure of theaters in countries including Italy and Britain. Meanwhile, the movie release calendar has continued to thin as Walt Disney Co. last week took 20th Century Studios’ “Free Guy,” starring Ryan Reynolds, and “Death on the Nile,” directed by Kenneth Branagh, off the 2020 schedule.

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Theater stocks rose sharply Monday on Wall Street after Pfizer said early data showed its vaccine candidate may be 90% effective at preventing COVID-19.

Shares of AMC Entertainment, the largest theater owner in the world, surged $1.28, or 51%, to $3.77. Leawood, Kan.-based AMC’s stock is still down nearly 50% year-to-date. Plano, Texas-based Cinemark’s shares jumped $4.07, or 45%, to $13.08. Los Gatos-based streaming service Netflix, which has seen usage grow during the pandemic, fell $44.23, or 9%, to $470.50.


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