By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Members of the Bagby family have operated movie theaters in small U.S. towns for four generations. With the coronavirus outbreak forcing their 400 screens to go dark indefinitely, some of them worry that run could come to an end.
The family’s Missouri-based company closed its 50 B&B Theatres locations in seven states this week and imposed its first layoffs ever, affecting 1,980 workers.
“We’ve been around since 1924,” B&B Chief Executive Bob Bagby said in an interview. “We hope we can continue to be around, but we’re a little scared right now.”
The global coronavirus outbreak has put the biggest strain on movie theaters in the industry’s 115-year history. Most theaters in the United States, and many around the world, are closed to help prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading.
Operators are unsure when they will be able to switch on the marquee lights again. Some voiced concern that they might not be able to reopen at all if the shutdown lingers for months. The theater business already was facing competition from streaming services such as Netflix Inc.
Website Deadline Hollywood estimated that U.S. and Canadian box offices could lose $2 billion if theaters remained closed until the end of May, though it noted that some industry sources believe that could be recouped later in the year.
To help theaters stay solvent, the National Association of Theatre Owners on Wednesday urged the U.S. Congress and the Trump administration to provide tax benefits and other emergency relief.
The industry employs more than 150,000 people in the United States, the group said, from ticket sellers to projectionists, concessions workers and cleaning crews.
Theater owners took pride in staying open during previous crises including World War II and after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and offering a respite from the world’s troubles. Plus, the movie business typically remained healthy during economic downturns when people sought a relatively inexpensive form of entertainment.
“This is the first time we’ve ever had to face mass layoffs in our industry,” said Brittanie Bagby, who serves as executive vice president at B&B Theatres alongside her sister Bobbie and brother Brock. “Our hearts are breaking.”
While no movie tickets or concessions are being sold, operators still have bills to pay for rent, mortgages, utilities and other costs.
Mark O’Meara, owner of University Mall Theatres and Cinema Arts Theatres in Fairfax, Virginia, said he would try to negotiate new terms for rent payments with his landlord to help get through the coronavirus crisis.
“If this goes six months, I don’t know if I can make it six months without any business,” O’Meara said. “I’m hoping for a two- to three-month turnaround.”
BIG CINEMA GROUPS STRUGGLE TOO
Even the largest theater chains are under pressure.
Cineworld Group Plc, which operates 9,500 theaters worldwide including 7,000 in the United States, said the worst-case scenario would be closing theaters for up to three months. If that happened, the company said it could be unable to make its debt payments.
When theaters do re-open, they face costs such as replacing expired food, candy and soda. One B&B location had just received a $3,000 food shipment that was given to employees because it would have gone bad during the closure.
Beyond that challenge, it is unclear when theaters will have fresh movies to show.
Hollywood studios have postponed many films that were set to debut in the coming weeks, including Walt Disney Co’s epic adventure “Mulan” and Marvel movie “Black Widow,” which had been slated to kick off the lucrative summer blockbuster season on May 1. Release dates for those films are now unknown.
Moviegoers also may be reluctant to return to crowds even when authorities say it is safe.
Operators said they were trying to provide financial help to employees during the closures, and the theater association announced a $1 million fund to assist displaced workers.
Many in the industry are hopeful moviegoing will see a resurgence after restrictions are lifted and people who have been staying home return to everyday activities.
“I’m very confident the industry will bounce back,” said Aaron Donaldson, who with his wife owns the single-screen Lake Theatre in Clear Lake, Iowa. “Once we are allowed to go back out there, I hope people are going to really enjoy being out, and they’ll go to the movies more.”
In the meantime, the Bagby family has appealed to lawmakers to help keep theaters afloat, noting that the local movie house is a primary source of entertainment in many small towns and a bedrock of American culture.
“Our slogan is ‘bringing Hollywood to your hometown,'” Bobbie Bagby said. “Long term, I really hope we can get back open in those communities. It’s one of the ways we will get people’s hopes back up.”
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; editing by Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)