Business & Economy

Movie theaters slow to reopen, safety precautions taken

Richard Bashara
Richard Bashara, owner of the Capitol Theater in Montpelier, stands behind a new plastic barrier installed at the theater’s concession stand. The multiplex reopened on August 28. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

On March 13, Woodstock’s Town Hall Theatre had its last pre-pandemic showing: The Call of the Wild, with Harrison Ford.

Pentangle Arts, which runs the movie theater, along with a slew of other arts programming, had four live shows, two summer camps, a concert series, and movies every weekend on the schedule for the summer, but once Covid hit, “all that was scrapped pretty quickly,” according to executive director Alita Wilson.

Now, the theater has reopened for a September-only outdoor movie series — but like many others across the state, they aren’t too eager to open their doors for inside showings just yet.

Gov. Phil Scott gave the word in early June that movie theaters could operate at 25% capacity, with safety precautions in place. On June 19, he loosened the rules even further, allowing 50% capacity at the movies.

And yet, unlike with restaurant or bar openings, where business owners across the board were eager to reopen as soon as possible, very few theaters opened their doors in June — or in July or August, for that matter.

Over the past three months, the state’s indoor movie theaters have begun to restart business at a slow trickle, with many worried that the spaces are either too dangerous, or the profit margins would be too small to make a reopening worthwhile.

“People are tentative about coming in,” said Richard Bashara, owner of Montpelier’s five-screen Capitol Theater. But once they arrive, they’ll see a slew of new safety measures. 

Since its reopening on August 28, the theater is selling tickets for up to 50% of the capacity of each auditorium. Moviegoers are instructed to obey six feet of social distance when they choose their seats, and they’re required to wear masks except when eating or drinking.

Customers can purchase both tickets and concessions online, eliminating any personal contact while entering the theater. Showtimes are staggered by at least 15 minutes to eliminate crowding in the lobby. And seats where patrons sit — flagged by a ticket left in each cupholder — are sanitized after every screening.

“We’re ready for customers,” Bashara said. 

His worry now, as a theater owner in a small market, is that studios will hold back their major releases until major cities loosen restrictions on moviegoing. “If you’re Warner Brothers, you don’t want to release the movie if you can’t play it in New York and Los Angeles.”

James O'Hanlon tapes off movie theater seats
James O’Hanlon, owner of the Savoy Theater in Montpelier, blocks off seats to encourage social distancing when patrons return to the theater on September 4. Photo by Mike Dougherty

Down the street, Montpelier’s Savoy Theater recently opened just one of its two screening rooms for weekend showings only, said owner James O’Hanlon.

Reopening with a limit of about 50 customers will be a challenge, O’Hanlon said. “We can’t have busy nights. We can have sort of busy nights, but not the kind that make the business viable.”

O’Hanlon is also rearranging the concession system to relieve crowding in the lobby: customers will order when they purchase their tickets, and staff will bring refreshments to their seats. The theater will still offer nutritional yeast for popcorn — a favorite of regulars — but it won’t be self-serve.

In Chittenden County, Essex Cinemas reopened in August, with a mask mandate and assigned seating. But many other theaters say they’re still not ready to reopen, even with those kinds of precautions. 

Merrill’s Roxy Cinema posted on its Facebook page in July that it was “getting ready” to reopen, with deep-cleanings and non-invasive temperature checks at the door — but months later, a reopening has yet to happen. The Majestic 10 in Williston and Palace 9 in South Burlington, which share the same management as the Roxy, also have yet to announce an opening date.

Back in Woodstock, Wilson said it’s actually the poor air circulation in her historic theater that worries her most.

“While charming inside, its HVAC unit is 33 years old,” Wilson said. “Given the lack of substantial air coming in from outside, it’s really not a safe environment.”

For the winter, Wilson said she’s going to have their HVAC system fixed, but until then, the theater did just purchase a giant outdoor screen and projector to show free movies outside during the fall.

Wilson said in a typical year, their movie business not only pays for itself, but actually helps to fund some of their other programming. But like Bashara, she’s worried that the limited number of movie releases could be an even bigger stopping block than the safety concerns she has.

“To make a successful weekend, we need to make about a thousand bucks,” she said. “Showing already released films makes that kind of tough.”

But for now, Wilson said it isn’t clear that her theater is missing out on much by staying closed. She noted that The Nugget Theater in nearby Hanover briefly reopened this summer, but is now shut down again, and she said when her son and his friends recently went to the movies in Springfield, they reported being the only ones in the theater.

“Not too many people I know are comfortable being inside, even with masks on,” Wilson said. “And I do not want to be a theater where a Covid case is found to have spread.”

Vincent Buonanno touches up the paint job on the exterior of The Stowe Cinema on Tuesday, September 1, 2020. The movie house is showing films in two of its three theaters. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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Ellie French

About Ellie

Ellie French is a general assignment reporter and news assistant for VTDigger. She is a recent graduate of Boston University, where she interned for the Boston Business Journal and served as the editor-in-chief of The Daily Free Press, BU’s student newspaper. She is originally from Duluth, Minnesota.

Email: [email protected]

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