Amber Dews had a great time seeing “Space Jam: A New Legacy” on the big screen in mid-July, but the experience also brought up twinges of guilt.

It had been the first time that Dews and her family had seen a movie in a theater in more than a year and half. She wore a mask, felt safe and enjoyed seeing the animated characters come to life while reclining in plush leather seats at Falmouth’s Flagship Cinemas. But seeing the film also got her thinking about whether she and her family – including her husband and three children – will go to the movies as much as they used to, even when the pandemic subsides. They probably went once a month before the pandemic, before they discovered streaming.

“I feel guilty saying this, but when my oldest wanted to see ‘Cruella,’ we thought about going to see it at the theaters and we decided to pay $29 and watch it at home on Disney Plus,” said Dews, 38, of Cumberland. “We didn’t really do a lot of streaming before the pandemic, but we love the ease of it.”

The pandemic pummeled the movie theater business – worth $11.4 billion in 2019 and just $2.3 billion last year – leaving it with an uncertain future and crucial questions, like whether moviegoers who’ve grown used to seeing blockbusters streamed in their homes will come back in big numbers and whether continued COVID-19 surges and the specter of sitting next to unvaccinated people will keep audiences away. It’s also unclear if movie studios will distribute films exclusively to theaters as in pre-pandemic days or continue to release films to theaters and stream them simultaneously, decreasing the potential customer pool for theaters.

Southern Maine’s movie house landscape was especially hard hit during the pandemic, with the permanent closing of the Cinemagic chain in February and the loss of its 35 screens in Saco, South Portland and Westbrook, as well as the closing of a Smitty’s Cinema dine-in theater in Biddeford. Owners of Nordica Theatre in Freeport are still deciding whether they will reopen.

The Cinemagic movie theater in Saco closed for good in February. Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

But there are signs that the movie theater business will come back and could approach pre-pandemic attendance levels. There has been strong interest from companies wanting to reopen the three former Cinemagic locations soon, owners of all three buildings say. A spokesperson for the Cinemark theater chain, the nation’s third largest, confirmed this month that the company still plans to open a 12-screen venue in Westbrook’s Rock Row development in 2023, about two years later than originally planned when the theater was announced in 2019.

TO STREAM OR NOT TO STREAM

Movie business analysts and observers say that there is growing evidence Hollywood studios won’t continue the practice of releasing films to theaters and streaming services. Studios can normally make more money from theatrical releases than from streaming, though that may change if not enough people come back to theaters.

One signal of how Hollywood might distribute films came this spring when Warner Bros. Chief Executive Officer Jason Kilar said his studio plans to release its biggest 2022 films to theaters first, likely for 45 days, then release them for streaming, including on the Warner-owned HBO Max. Kilar announced in late 2020 that all of Warner Bros.’s 2021 releases would play in theaters and stream simultaneously, and his decision was taken as an indication the industry had changed.

The movie theater business will likely approach pre-pandemic attendance and box office numbers in 2023, predicts Eric Wold, a senior analyst who follows the film industry for B. Riley Securities in California. Wold said his optimism comes from the fact that several new movies have had strong box office numbers this summer, including “F9” and “A Quiet Place 2.” The former earned $70 million in its first weekend, and the latter made $58 million in its opening days. Disney’s “Black Widow” also made $80 million its first weekend.

Wold said it’s hopeful that people are going to the movies in big numbers for some films, despite the obstacles, including competition from streaming, COVID case surges and unvaccinated audience members. Plus, only about 84 percent of all movie theaters that closed during the pandemic have reopened.

Recent polls of moviegoers show that about 70 percent feel safe going to a theater now. Joan Phillips-Sandy, former director of the Maine International Film Festival, says she worries about going to crowded theaters this summer while many people, including children, aren’t vaccinated and cases are increasing. She probably won’t go anytime soon, especially while her unvaccinated grandson is visiting. But she also wonders how often she’ll go in the future, even once the pandemic is under control.

“I’ve gotten used to not going now, and I don’t know if I’ll go back or how often,” said Phillips-Sandy, who went to the movies at least once a month before the pandemic. “I think it would have to be something I desperately want to see on the big screen.”

Moviegoers get their concessions before heading into the theaters at Flagship Cinemas in Falmouth in mid-July. Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

THEATERS NEAR YOU

The numbers look stark. During the pandemic, southern Maine lost at least four first-run indoor movie theaters with the closing of the three Cinemagic theaters and the Smitty’s in Biddeford. Nordica Theatre in the Freeport Village Station retail complex has not reopened, and its ownership is still trying to decide when or whether it will, said Alfred Yebba, one of the owners. The theater is owned by partners in the shopping complex but run by a movie theater management group in Massachusetts.

“We’re making an assessment now of how other theaters are doing and looking at some other long-term factors,” said Yebba.

First-run theaters operating around Greater Portland include the Flagship Cinemas in Falmouth, Nickelodeon Cinemas in downtown Portland, and the Smitty’s Cinema in Windham. A little farther north, the Smitty’s in Topsham and the Regal Brunswick are open, as is The Magic Lantern in Bridgton. In York County, people can see new movies at the Flagship in Wells and the Smitty’s in Sanford.

Smaller art houses, which don’t usually show mainstream blockbusters, continue to operate too, including the Eveningstar Cinema in Brunswick. Many got federal aid, specifically from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program.

There are signs that the numbers of closed cinemas in Maine aren’t as dour as they look. First, it’s not clear that the closing of Cinemagic – a New Hampshire chain that ran eight theaters in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts – was solely caused by the pandemic. About a month and a half before Cinemagic announced it was closing permanently in February, company founder Mark Adam died in Naples, Florida, at the age of 61, according to his obituary. Though Cinemagic was closed for much of the pandemic and lost revenue, managers at Cinemagic did not give a reason for the chain’s closing and did not respond to emails and phone calls asking for more details.

Second, all three of the former Cinemagic locations are garnering interest from movie chains or other groups that want to reopen them as theaters. EPR Properties, a Missouri company that owns and leases movie theaters around the country, is in discussions with prospective tenants for the locations on Route 1 in Saco and on Route 22 in Westbrook, said Brian Moriarty, EPR’s vice president for corporate communications.

The theater at Clark’s Pond in South Portland has seen interest from about a half-dozen theater operators, including large national ones, said Steve Baumann of Compass Commercial Brokers in Portland. Baumann is listing the property for lease or sale for owner Joe Soley.

Baumann said, in discussing the properties with prospective tenants, the idea of basing lease payments on ticket sales has come up. Instead of a fixed amount due every month, the payment would depend on how many tickets were sold. Baumann said such an arrangement would allow anyone who took over the theaters the ability to build the business slowly while people are still hesitant about going back to the movies.

Baumann said he’s been approached by people who are interested in using the theater building, located in a retail complex near the Maine Mall, for other purposes as well. But Soley said he believes the building’s best use is as a theater. It got a $2 million upgrade a few years ago, including reclining seats.

Soley, who also owns the building that houses Flagship in Falmouth, said he thinks consumer demand for the movie theater experience will come back as strong as it was before.

“I think people are hungry for social occasions. You can see it with all the people lining up for restaurants. Seeing a movie in a theater is such a different experience,” Soley said. “My strong preference would be to have movies in there.”

Another promising sign for the Maine movie scene is that Cinemark – the nation’s third largest movie theater chain with more than 325 locations – still plans to build a 12-screen theater in the Rock Row retail and entertainment development in Westbrook, said Julia McCartha, of the Cinemark public relations department.

The project was announced by Cinemark and Rock Row developers Waterstone Properties Group in 2019, with a tentative opening date in spring 2021. Cinemark has signed a long-term lease with Waterstone and now aims to open in late 2023, said Waterstone co-founder Josh Levy. Levy said the theater fits well with the overall Rock Row plan to become a destination for people in the Portland area to do business, find entertainment and live.

Natalie Santiago, 15, of Portland puts butter flavoring on a bag of popcorn before seeing a movie at Flagship Cinemas in Falmouth in mid-July. Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

COMING ATTRACTIONS

When the Marvel film “Black Widow” opened July 9, three early evening screenings at Flagship Cinemas in Falmouth were just about sold out two hours before showtime, according to the theater’s seat reservation system. The lobby of the Flagship Cinemas in Falmouth was crowded at 6 p.m., much like in pre-pandemic times except for the few people wearing masks. Families with small children used the butter dispenser for popcorn, people waited for friends, and others lined up for tickets and concessions with smiles.

With Cinemagic in Saco closed, 18-year-old Andrew Tardif and his mother, grandmother and sister drove from Buxton to Falmouth to see “Black Widow.” He was vaccinated and felt safe in the theater. Tardif said he was hoping to come back the following week to see “Space Jam.” For him, seeing the action on a big screen is a unique experience, and the “Black Widow” screening reminded him how he missed seeing films in a crowd.

“It was just nice to have that interaction, to hear other people reacting to the film too,” said Tardif.

The three Smitty’s Cinemas in Maine appear on track to do as much business as they did pre-pandemic, said Albert Waite, the company’s director of operations. Waite said the number of paid admissions in June was about 50-75 percent of what it was in June 2019, depending on the location. In early July, he was expecting the month’s admissions to surpass July 2019. He said people seem comfortable coming back to the theaters now with low – though increasing – virus case numbers in Maine and more than 60 percent of the population vaccinated.

Waite is also confident that Hollywood will release enough new movies to entice audiences. Because theaters were closed for much of last year and films weren’t being released, Waite has heard from distributors that there’s a backlog now of major films.

“It’s no secret the bigger the movies, the more people want to experience it in a theater, to have that communal excitement,” said Waite.

Last year, many film observers were saying the industry would be changed forever because so many studios were releasing major films to streaming services and would be for a long time. But now many analysts don’t believe that.

Wold points to the drop in box office revenue for “Black Widow” after its first week as evidence that releasing a film to theaters and streaming at the same time decreases box office revenue. “Black Widow” made $80 million its first weekend at the box office and an estimated $60 million in streaming, according to Disney. But its box office dropped to $26 million in its second weekend, and Disney stopped releasing streaming numbers.

Wold says streaming doesn’t bring in as much money as theatrical releases, partly because major films available to people at home tend to get pirated and then put online for free, which diminishes demand by paying customers. Also, the studio can’t control the number of people who see a streaming movie, like they can in theaters.

Besides Warner Bros., some other companies are starting to unveil plans for getting back to a system of releasing films to theaters first, then to streaming, though the exclusivity period might be shorter. Sony Pictures announced that, in 2022, it will release major films “Uncharted,” “Morbius” and “Spider-Man” exclusively to theaters first, and then at some point, they will be streamed exclusively on Netflix.

Before the pandemic, many films weren’t streamed until at least three months after they were released to theaters, said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst for the movie website BoxOfficePro.com. But now Warner Bros. and others are floating the idea of a 45-day wait, which may become the norm, he said.

But all the speculation depends on whether moviegoers go back to theaters in big numbers.

Sheryl Martin of Lyman went to see “The Boss Baby 2” on the Fourth of July with her 6-year-old son at Smitty’s in Sanford and said it was “crazy busy.” They enjoyed the movie, but she found being in a crowded theater stressful. She figures she won’t go to the movies as much now because a lot of the new movies her son likes, such as “Space Jam,” can be streamed.

“We have HBO Max, so we watched ‘Space Jam’ for free and had a pizza,” Martin said. “It was a lot easier.”


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