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Independent movie theaters were already struggling. Coronavirus could leave them decimated

The exterior of the Lumiere Cinema at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills on Dec. 31, 2019.
The exterior of the Lumiere Cinema at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills on Dec. 31, 2019.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

On Sunday night, Mayor Eric Garcetti made an announcement that movie theaters in Los Angeles, along with other entertainment venues, bars and fitness centers, would all be closed until at least March 31 to slow the growing coronavirus pandemic. On Monday that shutdown was expanded to include all of Los Angeles County. National cinema chains such as AMC and Regal also closed all their venues.

For independent theaters in Los Angeles, the shutdown comes at an already perilous time, as they fight for audiences against the larger chains and studio blockbusters, as well as the increasing dominance of streaming platforms as part of audiences’ entertainment options.

“Frankly, we’ve already been in a fight to stay above water with streaming,” said Christian Meoli, owner and operator of Arena Cinelounge in Hollywood.

Initially, Meoli thought he would be able to stay open as the city encouraged social distancing and at first looked to merely limit the size of audiences.

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“We’ve recently been seeing an upswing in our attendance and so over the weekend I thought that we were going to be in the clear because Garcetti had kept it to 50 seats. And I’m a 49-seat arthouse,” said Meoli. “But the news, it’s just decimating.”

You knew something was going to come ... that someone was going to say, ‘Shut it down.’
Greg Laemmle

Greg Laemmle, president of Laemmle Theatres, said that the venues in his chain, all of which are in the county of Los Angeles, had been complying with the evolving directives before the shutdown.

Attendance at most venues had been steadily dropping as the reported number of local coronavirus cases rose.

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“You knew something was going to come,” Laemmle said, “either economically or from a jurisdictional standpoint, that someone was going to say, ‘Shut it down.’”

Laemmle’s Royal in West L.A. on July 15, 2019.
Laemmle’s Royal in West L.A. on July 15, 2019.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

At Lumiere Cinema at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills, which opened last year under new management after being operated by the Laemmle chain since 1974, people were still showing up last weekend for international titles such as “Beanpole,” “Corpus Christi” and “Sorry We Missed You,” though their numbers were dwindling.

“The week before people started canceling things. So before the shutdown it was sort of an inevitability,” said Peter Ambrosio, co-owner of the Lumiere along with Luis Orellana and Lauren Brown, noting that a few upcoming film festivals scheduled for the theater had pushed their dates to later in the year.

He observed another effect of the heightened sensitivities of audiences in the era of coronavirus. “The other thing is you can get attendance, but one thing you really can’t get is concessions,” he said. “You have people coming in but they’re definitely not going to buy anything because of the fears.”

The sudden closing of movie theaters in L.A. is bad enough, but with uncertainty as to whether they will actually be able to reopen after March 31 or remain closed even longer than that, cinema operators are left unable to make plans for next steps.

It’s definitely going to give us all a lot of time to reflect on what’s important and figure out how to move forward.
James Kirst

“April and May is going to probably not happen,” said James Kirst, founder and executive director of the Downtown Independent, regarding future bookings at the theater. “We’re going to play it by ear. The main thing is our crew, and just to make sure that we’re doing the right thing as far as, as they say, flattening the curve on this thing.

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“It’s going to be tough,” Kirst continued. “But it’s not the end of the world. It’s definitely going to give us all a lot of time to reflect on what’s important and figure out how to move forward.”

As theater owners look to life after the shutdown, whenever that may be, they will likely have to rely on understanding landlords, lenders, vendors and distributors until they get back to business.

“I’m trying to assess that as we speak in real time,” said Meoli, noting the emails and phone calls he had been getting about scheduling, cancellations and refunds.

Governments and health officials around the world are trying to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.

Meoli noted that as a member of the National Association of Theatre Owners, he hoped the Washington-based group could lobby for some kind of federal movie theater bailout. As he said, “I’m going to need it.”

“I think what’s unique is that we’re all in this together,” Ambrosio said. “This is a community situation. I think the thing that I’m going toward is counting on people’s goodwill, that we’re going to work with each other to make sure that we can stay open. There’s concern but it’s not peculiar or particular to our theater.”

Laemmle expressed regret for titles that have become collateral damage to the theater closures, such as A24’s “First Cow,” which had already begun a platform release, or Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Climb,” which saw its planned release on Friday canceled. (A24 announced Monday that “First Cow” will be rereleased sometime later in the year.)

Also on Monday, Universal Pictures announced that it would be releasing three of its current movies — “The Invisible Man,” “The Hunt” (which opened this past Friday) and “Emma” — to digital platforms. The titles will arrive well ahead of their usual home-video release for a 48-hour rental for $19.99. The studio also will put the upcoming animated sequel “Trolls World Tour” on VOD on April 10, the day of its previously scheduled global theatrical release. Both Warner Bros.’ “Birds of Prey” and STX’s “The Gentleman” are pushing up their VOD dates.

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Some are seeing the sudden shift in studio policy regarding release windows and day-and-date releases as the beginning of a major change in the way Hollywood does business. Once the coronavirus shutdown has passed and local movie theaters are allowed to open their doors again, will audiences return? Or, whether motivated by continued health and safety concerns or by simply becoming further used to getting what they want at home, will they stay away?

Even once the theaters do eventually reopen, they will still have to book films, promote those titles and hope that audiences will turn up.

From the latest James Bond to “Wonder Woman 1984,” many high-profile films are rescheduling their release dates to mitigate the risk of contracting COVID-19 in movie theaters and other large gatherings. Here’s a working list of all the film releases affected by coronavirus.

“Once the all-clear is issued, it may still be three or four weeks before we see a real significant number of movies of value that are available to us,” said Laemmle. “I don’t know how quickly we open after — it’s a real question mark.”

Both Meoli and Ambrosio believe that once people are allowed to get back to their lives, they will also return to movie theaters.

“I can only hope that after this self-quarantine period that there will be immense cabin fever happening,” said Meoli, “and people will want to be running out to places where they can be entertained again among other people. I think the isolation is going to be very hard for all of us to deal with. And there’s a reason why people love going to movies.”

“If you’re cooped up for weeks and then everybody says, ‘Oh, you can live your life again,’ is your instinct, ‘Oh yeah, I want to sit on the couch and watch a movie?’ No, it’s going to be, ‘Oh my God, I can go to a movie theater again,’” said Ambrosio.

People love going to watch a story together. And that’s not going to change.
Peter Ambrosio

“I think that there’s going to be probably a renewed joy in the idea of communal movie viewing,” said Ambrosio. “People love going to movie theaters. That’s the reason that it perseveres. Streaming is not the first assault on moviegoing, after TV and cable and VHS. This has been happening throughout the history of the platform and it’s always survived because, much like live music, people love going to watch a story together. And that’s not going to change.”

For anyone looking to support the theaters while they have their doors closed, there are a few options. The Lumiere was planning to roll out a membership and gift card program in April or May even before the shutdown, and those efforts will now be pushed up as a fundraiser. The Arena Cinelounge has nine exclusive popcorns available through their website, also at a few local retailers and via some delivery apps.

Laemmle referred to the idea of purchasing gift cards as “an interest-free loan” to the theaters for the time being but added, “I feel like where I’m really going to want our patron support is coming back to the theaters when the all-clear is given.”


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