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Local movie theaters reeling during pandemic reopening

  • Vanessa Amsbury-Bonilla and Kevin Goohs at the Peterborough Community Theatre. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/22/2020 3:59:58 PM

Movie theaters were one of the last businesses approved to reopen under New Hampshire’s stay-at-home guidelines. Theater owners in Peterborough and Wilton hoped to get their businesses back up and rolling, but early projections have them questioning whether they can stay afloat.

In the first five showings since the Peterborough Community Theatre reopened last Friday, owner Vanessa Amsbury-Bonilla said a total of nine people showed up. There were two showings where not a single person came through the downtown theater’s doors and another that just one movie enthusiast came to see “Military Wives.”

“It’s that bad,” she said. “And that’s not a sustainable model. We don’t make money as it is. In normal times, when our theater is thriving, we break even. Our margins are that slim.”

Wilton Town Hall Theatre owner Dennis Markaverich, who has owned the theater on Wilton’s Main Street for 47 years, said on Monday night, just two people came for one of his showings and not a single person for the other, and in one previous week, one of his movies made a total of $89.

“You can’t pay the bills on that,” he said.

After receiving the go ahead to begin reopening on June 30, both Amsbury-Bonilla, who owns the Peterborough Community Theatre with her husband Kevin Goohs, and Markaverich had hoped that going to the movies would be a choice that people felt comfortable making. So far that hasn’t proven to be the case.

“I don’t think people are scared, I know they are scared,” Markaverich said. “People aren’t feeling safe coming in.”

Production companies were hesitant to release appealing first-run movies during the COVID restrictions. Having to rely on content that has already been available on streaming services and no new movies in the pipeline doesn’t help theaters get customers in the door.

“We’re having an awful time getting films,” Markaverich said. While drive-theaters are experiencing a resurgence showing re-released classic titles like “Jaws,” “Goonies” and “Gremlins,” Markaverich said those don’t work at a theater like his.

“My audience is older folks and more artsy films,” he said.

Hamilton, which was slated for a summer release but went straight to streaming is something Markaverich said “we could have played all summer.”

But the reality is that people just don’t seem ready to go to the movies – even with a number of protocols and policies in place to enhance safety precautions.

“People are very afraid of being in an enclosed space with people they don’t know,” Amsbury-Bonilla said.

So Amsbury-Bonilla decided that her return to business would pause once again after the one-week run of “Military Wives” ends on Thursday, while Markaverich will only be showing his Saturday Afternoon Classics and his silent film series on certain Sunday, including this weekend, after Thursday’s screenings of “Emma” and “Downton Abbey.”

“It’s the stark reality,” Amsbury-Bonilla said. “Why are we open if nobody’s coming? It’s costing us more money to be open.”

She didn’t expect every showing to be filled, but getting nine people over the first three days of being open was startling.

“We kind of thought if we could get 20 people in each showing we’d be fine,” she said. The showing where one person came resulted in a $7 day.

“For the people who do show up, it’s totally safe,” Amsbury-Bonilla said.

Markaverich said those that have come are the usuals and there has been no new customers.

“I want to be optimistic, but this is the reality,” Markaverich said. “The show will go on after this intermission.”

Markaverich compares the recent operation of the theater to shoveling money into the boilers of the Titanic. He opened just days after being allowed on July 3 and admits it was probably a little early.

“I was excited to get going again,” he said. “I had to start somewhere, I had to start sometime, I had to play something.”

Amsbury-Bonilla put in place a mandatory mask policy for Sundays, but after no one showed for the matinee and four in the evening, the message was clear.

“We had hoped our mandatory mask Sunday would make a difference,” Amsbury-Bonilla said.

Amsbury-Bonilla launched a GoFundMe on Tuesday to hopefully help the theater see the other side of this. She pointed to the fact that the community pooled together more than $40,000 when the theater made the switch to digital in 2013 as a positive reminder that this area wants to see it survive. As of press time Wednesday, less than 24 hours after Amsbury-Bonilla launched the GoFundMe, it had raised more than $5,600 through 63 donations.

“I’m really hoping we can do the same, but I realize we’re in a very different time,” Amsbury-Bonilla said prior to its launch.

The theater did after all  survive the last global pandemic in 1918 just four years after opening.

For the movie she was showing, Amsbury-Bonilla said in normal times it would have been one of those bread and butter kind of movies.

“But people just weren’t coming,” she said. When she did a soft opening, just showing mystery movies of her choosing for free, she had better attendance.

In an effort to bring in some business, Amsbury-Bonilla is offering the option of private rentals of the theater. The cost is $75 for less than 10 people and $100 for 10 or more. As of Tuesday, she said there were five rentals planned through the end of the month. People can bring in a DVD or Blu-ray or use their phones to connect to the theater’s Chromecast to stream. She is working to get a virtual cinema program through some small indie studios up and running, where she will get a portion of the sale, but “the problem is most of those movies nobody’s ever heard of.”

Markaverich also offers private parties and has a few booked moving forward to complement his weekend offerings.

Amsbury-Bonilla heard that the pandemic could cause 50 percent of independent movie theaters to close down. Her goal is to make sure the one she owns with her husband is not one of them, and the same holds true for Markaverich.

“I’m hoping for myself we’ll get through this,” Markaverich said. “I want to be open again for  real.”

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

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