PARK RIDGE, Ill. — As of last week, AMC – the largest theatrical chain in the U.S. – announced 99% of its theaters were open. And Regal Cinemas said they would reopen April 2. It has been a tough year for an industry dependent on packing large crowds into enclosed spaces.
In the past few weeks, theaters have been allowed to reopen in big markets like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
“It's probably the toughest year we've ever had,” said Dino Vlahakis, who owns the iconic art deco Pickwick theater in downtown Park Ridge, Illinois. “The Pickwick has been open for almost 100 years.”
The classic movie house has been a mainstay for generations but closed on March 16 of last year.
“Movie theaters have had absolutely no income. The movie theater is worldwide a $48 billion business and after March 16, it went down to zero,” said Vlahakis.
It has been a tough year. According to Comscore, U.S. box office revenues dropped by 80% in 2020 to $2.3 billion, down from $11.4 billion in 2019.
Without any showtimes, the Pickwick turned to innovative ways to stay afloat. They sold popcorn, candy and other movie-night snacks for curbside pick-up – minus the movie.
“During the summer, the popcorn pickup was wonderful,” said Vlahakis. “We had good turnout. We did it once a week and then we opened it to a second day. But we continued pretty much for every Saturday.”
They also rented out their marquee for personalized messages.
“Happy Birthday wishes, graduation wishes, save the day wishes. And that's actually been actually something that we never thought would we would be doing,” said Vlahakis. “That turned out to be one of the biggest benefits.”
But once again, the popcorn is popping. Theaters like the Pickwick, which has 900 seats in its main auditorium, are allowed to operate at up to 25% capacity.
“When people are in the big theater, they do have a sigh of relief because they feel much more comfortable in the big theater, because there's nobody near them,” said Vlahakis.
While the financial scars of the pandemic will linger for some time, Vlahakis says he has faith in the magic of cinema to help them rebound.
“I really believe when the movies start to hit, and that's going to be about June, July when you're going to see a brand-new big picture coming out, I think then we'll get back,” he said. “We're social people and we love the movies.”