The success of recent holiday blockbusters has some movie theater owners in Maine cautiously optimistic that people are indeed coming back to the movies after the pandemic drove them away.
“People really want to return to normal, and if there’s a great movie that people want to see, that nudges them along to normalcy,” said Al Waitt, director of operations for Smitty’s, a combination movie theater and restaurant chain that has locations in Sanford, Windham, Topsham and Tilton, New Hampshire.
The industry has been anything but normal for the chain since the pandemic struck. Waitt said his theaters closed their doors on March 17, 2020, and reopened four months later, but were only running at 25 percent to 50 percent capacity.
“It was at the height of the pandemic. Studios weren’t releasing movies,” he said.
Some theater groups couldn’t stay open at all. Multi-state theater company Cinemagic made headlines in February 2021 when it announced it was permanently closing eight theaters throughout New England, including complexes in South Portland, Westbrook and Saco. At least two of those theaters — in Westbrook and Saco — reopened last October after Massachusetts-based Apple Cinemas bought both theaters along with others in Hooksett and Merrimack, New Hampshire.
“These were great options. They’re big theaters,” said Jessica Robitaille, operations manager at Apple.
Robitaille said both Maine locations are doing well enough financially, and the company is looking forward to another successful year in 2022, but she acknowledged that industry insiders are still worried about the future.
“Of course, it’s scary,” she said.
Nationwide data back up Robitaille’s concerns. Waitt noted that national gross admissions for 2019 stood at about $11 billion, but in 2020 that number plummeted to $4 billion. Numbers for 2021 are not available yet, he said.
A recent Gallup poll had even more grim figures. Americans saw an average of 1.4 movies in a theater over the past 12 months, and 61 percent — a figure Gallup called “historically high” — did not visit a movie theater at all in the past year.
“It’s been a struggle for movie theaters,” said Daniel Vieira, executive director of Theatre Owners of New England, a regional division of the National Association of Theatre Owners.
Vieira said federal grants, like the Shuttered Venue Operations Grant, helped many theaters nationwide stay alive, at least temporarily.
“That was a lifeline that kept a lot of theaters in business,” he said.
Waitt said blockbuster movies attracting large audiences are the best way to improve business. He said there have been spurts of activity, notably over the July 4 weekend in 2021. It rained, he said, which drove a lot of moviegoers to Smitty’s theaters.
Robitaille saw similar numbers over the holidays, driven by the popularity of films like “Spider Man: No Way Home.”
“It was really good to see full auditoriums for the first time in two years,” she said.
Waitt said he thinks the success, despite rising COVID-19 cases this winter, is due to people becoming braver about venturing outside.
“As more people are vaccinated, they’re more confident in going out in public,” he said.
Vieira noted that attendance figures, both regionally and nationwide, are not up to 2019 levels yet. Big movie blockbusters are few and far between, he said, but their popularity does give him and other theater owners hope for the future.
“It proves there’s still an enthusiasm. People want to go,” he said.
Waitt said Smitty’s offers food inside the chain’s theaters, and he credits that in part with the chain’s success.
“If someone is going to venture out of the house, they’re looking for the best experience they can find,” he said.
Robitaille said Apple is working on similar alternative entertainment offerings, such as video games and restaurants, inside the theater complexes. She said the company believes that will draw in more theatergoers.
“Hopefully in the future it doesn’t just mean going there for two hours to see a movie,” she said.