Theaters still feeling impact of COVID-19 one year later

Published: Mar. 29, 2021 at 9:23 PM CDT
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CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. (WEAU) - It’s been more than a year since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, causing businesses across Wisconsin to shut down.

One industry, largely-driven by filling the seats, is still trying to say “lights, camera, action!”

According to data from Comscore, movie theater box offices sales plummeted by 80% in 2020 from the industry’s second-best box office haul ever in 2019.

As theaters reopen with fewer seats available due to social distancing and the emergence of direct to streaming new releases, it won’t be easy for theaters to have a marquee 2021 season.

“It’s been a really long year for us here and probably the business in general,” says Micon Cinema Co-Owner Connie Olson.

She says the last 12 months have been tough on all three Micon Cinema theaters

“Our auditoriums are half the size because they’re all recliners now and we also had to socially distance, and so then we can still only have half of the people in the half sized theatres that we have.”

The limited attendance meant they have had to adapt just to stay afloat.

“A lot of people came and did the popcorn to go and the pizza to go especially in Eau Claire, a lot of people did do that,” Olson says. “We have had a lot of people that have done movie rentals and that has sustained us over the time, they’ve done private showings.”

Olson says business is starting to pick up again now that many people, theater-goers among them, are getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I think the clientele are starting to come back, we do see several older people too. We saw some of the families coming back, especially the family movies have been doing well.”

Several blockbuster movies are slated to come out over the next few months, Olson says she is optimistic this will lead to a return to the cinema.

“It’s good to have some coming out, like eventually here we have Godzilla this weekend opening in Eau Claire on Wednesday already.”

Those releases, however, are also bringing uncertainty as companies like Warner Brothers opt to release this year’s slate of movies straight to streaming.

“We understand that a lot of our business is decided by a couple of larger cities called New York and LA and those have just reopened at 25% capacity,” Olson says.

Even when health officials say it’s safe to go back to full capacity in theatres, will customers still opt to go to the theatre or will they stay home and continue to watch new releases from the comfort of their home?

“I’d go to the theatres once in a while, but I’ve been streaming since before COVID and I’m going to continue to do that. It just works out easier for me,” says Ryan Wozniak of Eau Claire.

“I really enjoyed going to the movies with my friends before the pandemic and I’m really hoping to get back in theatres soon,” says Emilee Borowski of Eau Claire.

Even with the introduction of straight to streaming for big titles, Olson says the industry will adapt and is hopeful theatres and streaming will be able to coexist.

Olson says another issue has been staffing.

The Eau Claire Micon location has been closed for the last three weeks because it didn’t have enough staff to run at full speed.

However, she says the Eau Claire theater will be up and running again starting Wednesday.

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