Since last March, Loudouners have used their living room as movie theaters, downsizing their screens from 50 feet to 50 inches. For a few months, that was their only option. But now, half of the county’s movie theaters are open and showing films every day of the week, and they’re expecting a turnaround in 2021.
While all three Regal theaters—at the Dulles Town Center, the Brambleton Town Center and in Countryside—have been closed since early October, AMC Loudoun Station 11 in Ashburn, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema at One Loudoun, and CMX Cinemas Village 14 in the Village at Leesburg are open at limited capacities. Per Gov. Ralph Northam’s latest restrictive order, movie theaters are allowed to open at a maximum capacity of 30%.
With such relatively low attendance, theaters are functional, but largely just getting by.
Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas is doing less than 25% of the business it was doing this time last year, Vice President of Operations Scott Flanagan said.
“We’re down significantly from last year,” he said.
To help with finances, Alamo, which closed March 17 and reopened the first week in August, is operating only four days a week—Thursday to Sunday—from now through at least the end of February. Flanagan said consolidating to four days also helps the theater’s employees, many of whom work for tips and prefer to work busier shifts on the weekends.
But what has been the biggest challenge for Alamo hasn’t been a lack of movie-goers, Flanagan said. Instead, it has been the lack of content from Hollywood.
“That has probably hurt as much if not more than people being concerned about the safety,” he said.
CMX Cinemas, which acquired Cobb Theaters in late 2017, was closed longer than Alamo. While CMX also closed in mid-March, it didn’t reopen until Nov. 20. It’s now open every day of the week.
This year looks brighter. Between April and August, 55 new movies are scheduled to hit the big screen, many of which will be films that were originally set to premier during 2020. And one of those will be the highly anticipated, 25th installment of the James Bond series, “No Time To Die,” which was initially set to premier last April and is now set for an April 2 release date.
CMX Cinemas Chief Operating Officer Javier Ezquerro said his team is “actually very excited” about this year, when a new major movie is set to premier nearly every weekend.
“I’ve never seen a calendar year like 2021. It’s stunning,” he said.
COVID Cleaning Offers Peace of Mind
Theaters managers say their staffs are on top of the cleaning efforts. All six of Loudoun’s theaters, which represent four theater companies, are members of the National Association of Theatre Owners. That organization operates the CinemaSafe program, which promotes protocols developed by epidemiologists aimed to safely usher guests back to theaters.
In addition to Alamo spending $60,000 to upgrade HVAC filters and improve its fresh air intake system, all employees at the Drafthouse wear face masks and gloves at all times and have their temperatures checked at the back door before entering the theater. Crews also disinfect each theater after each movie showing using vital oxide sprayed from an electrostatic sprayer.
Flanagan said vital oxide is one of the safest cleaning agents on the market. Giving an example, he said a person could use a fork that was sprayed by the chemical just 10 minutes prior. Of course, the Alamo staff doesn’t spray utensils with the chemical.
And when a guest or group of guests purchase tickets at Alamo, two seats are automatically blocked off between them and the next group.
CMX Cinemas practices the same types of safety measures. Its ticketing system also automatically blocks off seats north, south, east and west of each group. And between each show, crews from the COVID Clear sanitization company use foggers to sanitize the air and surfaces inside the theaters.
Theaters Push Private Rentals
Loudoun’s theaters are working to bring in more guests by advertising the rental of individual theaters to small groups.
CMX Cinemas offers those private rentals at prices starting at $99. The theater also offers $5 tickets all day long every “Terrific Tuesday.” And on Sundays, CMX honors Hero Day, in which frontline workers receive free tickets at the box office.
At Alamo, personal theater rentals cost $150 and require a $150 minimum purchase of food and beverages for each group.
While that might seem costly at the outset, Flanagan clarified that if the rental cost is split between 10 people, the payoff is the ability to watch a movie in a theater that typically seats 100 people for $15 extra a person. Flanagan said the $150 food and beverage minimum is basically a given, since people typically purchase food and drinks anyway.
“It’s actually, I think, a pretty good deal,” he said.
Alamo also features the county’s only active drive-in theater, which, Flanagan said, is keeping Alamo in business at the moment.
Drive-in Theaters Regain Popularity
While driving up to the base of a larger-than-life screen to watch movies from inside a car largely became outdated decades ago, the experience was reborn across the nation during 2020 as indoor theaters remained closed for the better part of summer.
Alamo’s drive-in, located about five blocks from the theater, is the product of a partnership with One Loudoun that began in August. There, 186 cars can park in 18-foot spaces for their passengers to tune into FM 94.3 and watch movies on the big screen—a 4K laser projection screen that costs $40,000, with accompanying equipment that costs even more. Guests can also order from Alamo’s menu and have their food delivered straight to their cars. Flanagan said that service is just as prompt as it is inside the theater.
“It was a big chance for us … but it’s paid off,” he said.
And paid off, it did. Flanagan said the Ashburn drive-in was the 45th highest grossing theater in the nation for the opening weekend of “Wonder Woman 1984.”
“For opening weekend, it cranked,” he said.
Andrea Khoury, the president of the Khoury Media Group that heads public relations for One Loudoun, said “people are really appreciating the option to be outdoors” watching movies with family.
Flanagan said he has heard from many people in their mid-50s and older who remember the fun of attending drive-ins decades ago.
“People love it,” he said.
The county recently extended Alamo’s and One Loudoun’s permit to keep those outdoor movies running through the end of April. From now until at least then, movies will be shown on the screen daily, wind permitting; the screen can withstand winds of up to 24 mph.
“The county has been super supportive,” Flanagan said.
The Loudoun County Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services also hosted three drive-in movies at Bolen A. Park near Leesburg in July. For each of those showings, 70 cars pulled up, many full of passengers.
Half of Loudoun’s Theaters Remain Closed
Loudouners are fortunate to have three movie theaters to visit amid the pandemic. Still, pre-COVID, they had six to choose from.
According to the Regal website, all of its theaters suspended operations Oct. 9 “in response to an increasingly challenging theatrical landscape and sustained key market closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The company stated it will continue monitoring the situation and will publicize its plans to resume operations “at the appropriate time, when key markets have more concrete guidance on their reopening status, and in turn, studios are able to bring their pipeline of major releases back to the big screen.”
Those closures no doubt are a big blow to the company, especially to its Brambleton location, which in December 2019 installed a 4DX and ScreenX theater, which enhances on-screen visuals and includes motion-synchronized seats and other effects like wind, fog, rain, lightning, snow, vibration and scents. Regal at the time also announced it was upgrading the seating and lobby in the Brambleton theater.
Typically, Regal, a subsidiary of the Cineworld Group, operates 549 theaters—equating to 7,211 screens—in 42 states, Washington, DC, Guam, American Samoa and Saipan.
Streaming from Home Becoming a New Trend
As many Loudouners have recently made the venture back into the theater, even more continue streaming newly released movies in their living rooms.
According to WarnerMedia, only 39% of U.S. movie theaters are open amid the pandemic and only half of the available seating in those theaters is available for ticket sales. Meanwhile, the internet inside the homes of millions of Americans hasn’t skipped a beat.
When WarnerMedia’s “Wonder Woman 1984” premiered in theaters on Christmas Day, it also premiered on HBO Max. On Dec. 27, the entertainment conglomerate announced that nearly half of HBO Max’s retail subscribers viewed “Wonder Woman 1984” on the day it premiered, in addition to millions of wholesale subscribers who have access to the platform through cable, wireless and other services. The total viewing hours on HBO Max on Christmas Day also more than tripled in comparison to a typical day in November.
WarnerMedia has announced that it will release multiple movies in 2021 on HBO Max concurrent with their theatrical releases. “Wonder Woman 1984” is available for streaming on HBO Max through Jan. 25.
Despite that, and other similar recent announcements, Ezquerro said he is optimistic for the movie theater industry.
“Just because you’re streaming movies doesn’t mean you will never go back to the theater,” he said.
Flanagan said he’s not too concerned about streaming putting theaters out of business, either, since production studios make most of their money off the portion of movie ticket sales they receive.
Moving deeper into 2021 and beyond, Flanagan said he expects operations to remain quiet through March. But, he’s expecting a bit of normalcy to return by April, once more people are vaccinated and, hopefully, the governor relaxes some restrictions on businesses.
“You will be able to tell a noticeable difference in April,” he said. “We’re excited about 2021.”