Zach Armstrong, owner of The Isis Theatre in Winamac, poses in the lobby next to the original ticket collector box. Staff photo by James D. Wolf Jr. | CNHI News Indiana
Zach Armstrong, owner of The Isis Theatre in Winamac, poses in the lobby next to the original ticket collector box. Staff photo by James D. Wolf Jr. | CNHI News Indiana
This summer was the first time since March of 2020 that movie theaters could both be open and have a steady stream of new films.

The independent, first-run theaters that aren’t part of big, national chains saw an upswing over June and July as more blockbuster movies were released, but things aren’t back to pre-pandemic levels yet.

Audiences are still smaller, movies are being released simultaneously on streaming services and in theaters and, potentially, there could be more social distancing restrictions depending on new variants of COVID-19.

“It’s anybody’s guess what’s going to happen in a month or so,” said Richard Diffenback, Managing Owner of Mary Max Cinemas in Logansport, a modern, five-screen theater in Logansport built in 2013 with Primary Owner Bill Hawes.

At the end of July, French cinemas were back under mask restrictions, required proof of vaccination and saw box office receipts down.

“I’ve got a feeling of déjà vu,” Diffenbach said. However, he feels there’d be pushback against an entire shutdown and is planning for the near future.

The Isis Theater in Winamac changed from being open seven days a week before the pandemic to just four days (Thursday through Sunday).

Zach Armstrong, owner of the 1936 art deco theater, has an eye on the start of 2022 when the Warner Brothers agreement of same-day releases with HBO Max ends.

“That’ll determine if we go back to seven days a week,” said Armstrong.

However, he added, “I don’t know if the industry will be back enough for that”.

Brent Barnhart, whose KJB Theaters includes two drive-ins and three indoor theaters in Illinois and Indiana, expects to see the usual dip after school begins.

But that may change because big summer films like “Free Guy” and Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” have been held until fall — if the COVID-19 virus remains under control and the studios don’t move the new releases back again.

“It’s kind of one day at a time,” Barnhart said. “If we keep going on this track, we’re going to see things go back to normal by the end of the year.”

THE FIRST SETBACKS — INCLUDING NO MOVIES

All movie theaters in Indiana closed mid-March 2020.

Things began to re-open slowly a few months later for movie houses.

But there was a big problem.

“There weren’t any new movies,”

Armstrong said. “They weren’t releasing any new ones.”

The studios were instead re-releasing older films and classics.

Armstrong said many had 100s to choose from, but Disney was simultaneously the easiest and hardest to work with.

They had four choices each month, and the movies were to run all month.

He said he stayed with films people would want to see on the big screen, such as “Jurassic Park.”

The Fowler Theatre in Fowler went with older classics, which fit its atmosphere.

It’s also an art decoera theater, built in 1940, and since 2001, it’s been a non-profit, said Executive Director Jill Byrd.

They brought in “Gone with the Wind” because The Fowler was one of the original five theaters in the country to premiere it, and it also had a good draw this time.

The “Wizard of Oz also did well, but “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Singing in the Rain” did not.

“It depended on the movie,” Byrd said.

They also screened “His Girl Friday,” the first film The Fowler showed in 1940.

ALTERNATIVE PROMOTIONS AND VIEWINGS

When theaters did reopen last year, some did better than others.

“Drive-ins had a spectacular year —probably the best they’ve had in decades,” Diffenbach said. Barnhart saw the split in his KJB theaters, which owns Paris Theatre in Paris, Ill., Indiana Theatre in Washington and Linton Theatre in Linton. KJB also operates Starlight Drive-in in Bloomington and Moonlight Drive-in in Terre Haute.

“The drive-ins kind of held steady, where the indoors did nothing,” he said.

The studios only re-releasing movies skewed things in favor of the outdoor theaters because of the ambiance of mid-20th century.

“Retro movies predominantly do better at the drive-ins,” Barnhart said.

There was also the spaciousness as people kept to social distancing.

For his indoor theaters, he used multiple ways to keep bringing money in.

He had private rental for movies, curbside concession sales on Fridays and Saturdays and even theater rental so people could plug their gaming systems in and play video games on the big screen.

His concession vendor suggested selling movie food, and cars were lined up for it.

“It kept the lights on, it kept the people employed and it kept the community involved,” he said.

Mary Max and The Fowler also did curbside concession and rentals. The Fowler also made movies into events and had non-movie events, Byrd said.

During Cinema week June 22 to 25, The Fowler had buy-one-get-one-free popcorn and Facebook trivia for free tickets, shirts, mug and other prizes.

When “Fast and Furious 9” came out after that, there was a car show and a cook out.

In July, The Fowler had a fashion show.

On Oct. 23 it will be the 1920 “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” movie, complete with an organist, as it would’ve been when the silent film first came out.

“We’re trying to add events that get people into theater seats,” said Byrd.

And because the theater relies on art grants, they have to bring art events to the community, she added.

THINGS TURN AROUND — SORT OF


Before COVID-19, when local businesses would sponsor a movie, the audience filled all 210 seats, Byrd said.

Of the three sponsored events this year, the audience reached 98, an increase over the usual audience of 50 to 70.

“It’s just kind of slow, which is to be expected,” Byrd said. “It’s slow and steady.”

It’s also harder to reach the expected attendance.

“Obviously we hope for certain numbers because the studios expect them, but they’ve been understanding,” she said.

In a small town where the movies are there for three weeks, the last week is not well-attended.

However, The Fowler has been seeing people coming from as far as Lafayette, Monon, Indianapolis and Kokomo since reopening, Byrd added.

Barnhart had shut down his indoor theaters from July 2020 to Labor Day, when Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” came out.

“Tenet” did better than the re-release movies, but “that didn’t do what everybody thought it would,” he said.

For October he showed classic Halloween films, and in November classic holiday films. Armstrong said he saw a turnaround for The Isis when “The Croods 2: A New Age” came out Nov. 1.

He credits the timing and that his theater does best with family-oriented films.

Around Christmas, Warner Brothers released the delayed “Wonder Woman 1984.”

“That did okay,” Diffenbach said.

But for Barnhart and KJB, that’s when things turned around, and “Godzilla Vs. Kong” and “Tom & Jerry” followed.

Between Wonder Woman and spring, things didn’t do as well for The Isis, Armstrong said. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” with Angelina Jolie was supposed to be a good money maker, but it wasn’t He thinks the title may have added to that.

“Black Widow” did well enough, but it may not have been family oriented enough, and “Jungle Cruise” also performed decently.

But he’s waiting for the Paw Patrol movie and “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” which has been pushed back. Both films attract a much younger audience.

“Right now you see movies that are directed at large markets,” he said.

Byrd said that family releases do well at The Fowler, and Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon” was no exception in March.

“As we go into 2021, there’s been an increase in the supply of movies,” Diffenbach said. And since Memorial Day, there’s been the normal summer releases.

“What we still haven’t seen is the number of people through the door,” he added.

Diffenbach said June and July are showing improvement, though. “We’re certainly way ahead from where we were last July and August,” he said.

Barnhart said that with summer releases, “we’ve seen the audience kind of rebuild, thanks to that, so it’s been a real good June and July.”

August is still early, but “Jungle Cruise,” released July 30, has been his strongest audience deliverer yet.

Diffenbach looks at his business’s twice-monthly movie day for seniors, which has reduced prices, as a barometer of business.

“Last year the numbers absolutely cratered,” he said.

Attendance was in the single digits from 300 to 400 people.

“That has star ted to change with the increased vaccinat ions and the increased sense it’s okay to return,” he said.

It’s now in the 100s.

“To us, that’s an encouraging sign,” he said.

Diffenbach noted that the films released now are one or two years old, held back by studios.

“This summer is basically what last summer was supposed to be,” he said.

He expects that will change in 2022.

“The pandemic not only affected the release of movies,” he said. “It also affected the production of movies.”

NEW EQUIPMENT REQUIREMENTS, STREAMING AND OTHER CONCERNS

It’s hard to tell how much streaming is affecting movie and cinema theaters. Disney, Paramount, Universal and Warner Brothers all experimented with simultaneous theater and streaming releases.

The theater owners and managers aren’t sure how that will affect them, and most studios plan to stop doing that by 2022.

“I’m sure there is some effect to attendance,” Diffenbach said. “Black Widow didn’t open typically as strong as most Marvel movies.”

Data indicates that younger people gravitate to streaming, including people with many kids because of costs for them.

For Barnhart, streaming competition is “yes and no.”

“It does affect a movie’s bottom line,” he said. And audiences have f latlined before reaching pre-pandemic numbers. But it also depends on the film, and family films are doing better.

Byrd said streaming hurts The Fowler, but Disney seems to believe it doesn’t affect theaters.

It’s also gotten more expensive simply to operate a movie theater because of the studios’ switch to digital format from 35mm films and projectors in 2014.

Diffenbach said that in his 37 years in the movie theater business, the last seven have been with digital.

The equipment is more expensive and the maintenance is more expensive, while the breakdowns he’s had are “ridiculously expensive,” he said. Armstrong said The Isis had to shut down for three weeks during its upgrade because a part just wasn’t available. With the old 35mm projectors, they could get a part at a local hardware store.
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