Movie goers drive through the pandemic

How movie theaters made their way through the pandemic through drive-ins and online distribution

The movie theater industry, fragile amid the rise of streaming services, was one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. After Los Angeles city officials ordered all movie theaters to close in mid-March of 2020, many long-standing theaters, like ArcLight and the Cinerama Dome, shut down permanently.

While vaccinations against the COVID-19 virus are easily available and many cities have lifted restrictions, challenges presented by the pandemic linger for cinemas. As of early July, the country’s box office ticket sales were down 42% from a year earlier. About 90% of movie theaters are now open, but the number of theaters that still exist has decreased.

Despite a year of closures, constrained capacity and germaphobia, theaters used drive-in theatres and live streams to maintain their audiences’ attention.

The Rooftop Cinema Club (RCC), an open-air theater company, was started in 2011 by cinephile Gerry Cottle and already had its roots in outdoor showings. Its first theater was in Shoreditch, London, and they now have theaters in Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, New York, Tampa and London.

When RCC had to close down its rooftop theaters, it pivoted operations toward drive-in movies in May 2020, starting in Houston. Cottle said the shift to drive-in venues saved his business and allowed it to safely get employees back to work while the pandemic continued.

This tactic was embraced by many smaller cinema chains; as indoor venues were closed, some theaters chose to switch to drive-in movies to accommodate social distancing.

American Cinematheque is a non-profit organization that owns three long-standing theaters in the LA area, including the Aero Theatre and the Egyptian Theatre. The organization chose to close on its own prior to the government mandates and quickly began looking for ways to reach audiences remotely.

American Cinematheque also hosted a drive-in theater in Claremont, Calif., that ran in summer and fall of 2020. While the location was a long way from their existing theaters, American Cinematheque deputy director Gwen Deglise said that this didn’t dissuade their members and regulars from attending.

“The audience was very excited and … happy to come out,” Deglise said. “They could connect safely outdoors and have an experience that’s rooted in the American experience of going to the movies.”

Despite earning a larger share of box office revenue in the first 8 months of 2021 than they did for the same period in 2019, many drive-in theaters are beginning to close. RCC opened one at the Santa Monica airport in 2020, but will close it permanently at the end of year. According to Cottle, they took a big hit as everything began to open up again because there were so many other recreational activities becoming available.

Another tactic that some theaters took to keep operations going was to provide virtual screenings of their programming online. American Cinematheque’s process included digitizing all of its archived Q&A panels with the cast and directors for different movies done over the years. After American Cinematheque workers saw viewers from over 100 countries tune in, they decided to continue virtual screenings, even after the doors to their theaters opened again.

As more Angelenos became vaccinated earlier this year and restrictions began to ease up, many theaters were able to provide either reduced or full capacity. However, not all theaters saw patrons quickly flood back in.

Margot Gerber, the vice president of marketing and publicity at Landmark Theatres, said that after spending a year inside watching movies on the couch, many people didn’t want to go out to see more films.

Box office sales are still down significantly from last year. However, movie-goers still express their interest in going back to theaters. A Fandango survey of about 4,000 people, most of whom lived in New York, showed that 93% of people who recently went to a theater were satisfied with the experience.

“The attendance was there,” Deglise said. “Have we reached back to pre-pandemic attendance [levels]? I don’t think so. But really it’s nevertheless good.”

The survey found that about 91% felt that some films needed to be seen on a movie theater screen rather than a streaming service and 87% said that watching something from their home couldn’t compare to seeing it in theaters.

“You have a kitchen in your house, right? That doesn’t mean you don’t look forward to going out and having a nice meal at a restaurant where someone prepares it and makes it special for you,” Cottle said. “Similarly, you have great content online … but it’s also nice to be able to leave your [house] and go to the cinema.”

While lingering economic issues and the detection of the COVID-19 Omicron variant may impact businesses, particularly smaller ones, previous lockdowns have helped cinemas find ways to stay open and keep their audiences engaged despite the changes of the last year.