With warmer weather and COVID-19 vaccine availability signaling a possible turning point in the pandemic, Portland-area movie theater operators are following a cautious script.
Falmouth’s Flagship Premium Cinemas reopened March 10 for weekend shows and private rentals. But Portland’s Nickelodeon Cinemas remain temporarily closed, and Cinemagic cinemas in Saco, South Portland, and Westbrook have gone dark for good.
David Scott, owner of Nickelodeon’s parent company Patriot Cinemas, last week said his Temple Street theater will be open again soon, although the date is a “moving target” based on how the pandemic evolves.
Scott said he hopes to reopen by early May, but it will depend on how the vaccine rollout proceeds, as well as the film releases dictated by Hollywood. That, he said, “depends on the whole world.”
Flagship in Falmouth is one of southern Maine’s only operating theaters at a time when the movie industry is struggling to rebound from a year of bad business.
Andrew Poore, vice president of operations for Flagship, last week said March felt like the right time to reopen – not only because more vaccinations mean more people were feeling safer, but also because Hollywood has started releasing more popular movies again.
Flagship operates 19 theaters in several states, including five others in Maine: Auburn, Eastpoint, Oxford, Waterville, and Wells. The Wells and Oxford locations remain temporarily closed, but Auburn, Waterville, and Eastpoint have been open for weekend shows since last September. Falmouth also opened briefly in the fall, and then closed again.
“In the beginning, our clientele in Falmouth seemed to be a lot more cautious than other areas of the country, that’s why we didn’t open up right away,” Poore said. “(But) then the time felt right with the product, too.”
He added that “Tom & Jerry, The Movie,” which was released Feb. 26, was the first film this year that came out and did well at other Flagship theaters, which factored into the decision to reopen Falmouth.
“Godzilla vs. Kong,” released March 25, resulted in enough presale tickets for Falmouth to open up last Wednesday and Thursday for showings, despite the film also being released for streaming at home the same day on HBO Max.
“People want to get out of the house,” Poore said. “People want to see a movie like that, in particular, on the big screen.”
Flagship has also been renting theaters for private parties, which Poore said has been successful in Falmouth: 400 people attended private shows in the month since the theater reopened. Patrons can rent the auditoriums for $90.
Flagship theaters are following state-mandated COVID-19 guidelines, which include social distancing measures for each show. For instance, when a patron buys reserved-seat tickets, three seats are electronically blocked off to the left and right of the seats purchased.
Still, the movie theater industry as a whole has suffered greatly during the pandemic, with ticket sales in North America dropping by 80 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year, according to Comscore.
Even before the pandemic, movie theaters were already threatened by the growing popularity of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. The coronavirus has compounded the problem.
The National Association of Theatre Owners last year launched a campaign called Save Your Cinema, which successfully lobbied Congress to pass more funding to help small and midsize theater companies survive.
A message of gratitude is posted on the Save Your Cinema website.
“Moviegoers came together to send over 365,000 letters to all 535 Senators and Members of Congress urging them to pass legislation to #SaveYourCinema and preserve thousands of jobs in theaters across the U.S.,” it states.
The promise of federal aid, however, was not enough to help Cinemagic, which permanently closed all eight of its New England theaters in February. Poore said it was an “extremely sad day in (the local movie) industry” when Cinemagic shuttered, and he knew several people who worked for the company.
Once the pandemic is over and demand for in-person movies resumes, he also thinks Cinemagic’s closure means another movie theater will open in the Portland area. He said he has noticed a “tremendous” demand for the movie-going experience locally since he got his first movie theater job in 1986 at the former Maine Mall Cinema.
“Obviously the Nickelodeon and the Falmouth Flagship are not going to be enough screens to satisfy all the moviegoers in the Portland area,” Poore said.
Nickelodeon has been closed since late September after reopening for a month to low attendance after the initial COVID-19 closures last year.
Scott said his Nickelodeon employees are “anxious to come back,” and he hopes customers are too. When Nickelodeon is able to reopen, he said, its schedule will probably “start off slow” before picking up steam – in part because the business must rely on decisions being made in Hollywood.
Studios have recently changed the release dates for some big movies, Scott noted, including Disney’s “Black Widow,” which was initially supposed to be released May 7 but has now been delayed until July.
Other upcoming films he thinks could be a draw are “A Quiet Place 2” and “Cruella,” both of which are still scheduled to open Memorial Day weekend.
People hoping to see a movie in-person north of Portland could visit Smitty’s in Topsham or the Bangor Mall Cinemas, which recently reopened. Brunswick’s Regal Cinema is owned by Cineworld, which recently announced it plans to reopen its U.S. theaters this month, according to Deadline.
The Portland area is also home to two drive-in movie theaters, Prides Corner Drive-In in Westbrook and the Saco Drive-In, both of which are closed for the season but plan to reopen as usual in the coming months, according to their Facebook pages.
Drive-in theaters across the country saw increased business as the pandemic swept the nation last spring, due to their inherently social distance-friendly format, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“The future’s bright, no question,” Nickelodeon’s Scott said. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, (it’s just a matter of) how long that tunnel is.”