Nickelodeon Cinemas on Temple Street in Portland is closed through at least mid-November after poor attendance and postponed movie releases made its recent reopening unviable. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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At 4 p.m. on Oct. 2, a rainy Friday afternoon that in a pre-pandemic world would have been primetime for moviegoing, the marquee at Nickelodeon Cinemas was literally a sign of the times.

“Temporarily Closed,” read one panel, followed by “See You Soon” on another.

As winter approaches, movie theaters, an industry already straining under the popularity of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, are in danger of becoming the latest casualty of COVID-19.

A sign on Nickelodeon’s front door included a message from its management team with more information about the temporary closure.

“We have made the difficult decision to temporarily close until we have a meaningful and sustainable schedule of new movies that our guests want to enjoy on the big screen,” it said. “We are carefully watching schedules and anticipate a reopening as early as November 2020.”

A message on the front door of Nickelodeon Cinemas in Portland encourages patrons to contact their legislators about the issues facing the movie theater industry. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

The statement also called its patrons to action, asking them to contact legislators with a bid to save local cinemas like Nickelodeon. “Many across the country and world are at risk of closing for good,” it warned. 

In an interview Oct. 5, David Scott, owner of Nickelodeon parent company Patriot Cinemas, said the Temple Street multiplex reopened in late August to low attendance numbers after being closed for five months.

“We reopened back at the end of August in the hopes of people coming and having films to show,” Scott said. “People didn’t come.”

Besides the Nickelodeon, Patriot also owns theaters in Hanover and Hingham, Massachusetts. Calling from one of his empty auditoriums Oct. 5, Scott said all of the locations are closed and will remain that way for at least six weeks. 

Patriot received federal funding through the CARES Act, according to Scott, but he said “it wasn’t enough” to bring business back to normal.

According to Nickelodeon’s Facebook page, the theater opened four new films on Friday, Sept. 25, including “RBG,” a documentary about the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Scott said he spent the following week trying to decide whether to remain open.

He said the Nickelodeon was only filling auditoriums to 25 percent capacity, and per state law, all patrons were required to wear masks while inside. If they wanted to eat a snack or drink their drink during the show, they could remove masks to do so.

While he thinks people’s fear of indoor activities contributed to low ticket sales, Scott said Hollywood pushing back film releases has also been a significant blow.

He cited the new live-action version of “Mulan,” which Disney decided to move from a theatrical release to its streaming service Disney Plus in early September, as one movie that theaters were counting on. Other big films such as “Wonder Woman 1984” have been delayed until December, and the next James Bond film, “No Time to Die,” recently had its release delayed until next spring.

“If we don’t have a product to show, it’s not sustainable, which is really depressing,” Scott said. “We’re planning on reopening in mid-November. We’re hoping that there’s product, but film studios keep pushing these films back until 2021. I really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Another reason big-ticket movies are having their release dates pushed back is that theaters in New York and Los Angeles, which he called “two of the biggest markets in the world,” are closed because of the pandemic. 

“If Hollywood does not have those two markets to show their films, they don’t release them to the whole world,” Scott said. “It’s crazy.”

And it’s not just the small theater chains like Patriot that are struggling. Cineworld Group, which owns Regal Cinemas, the second-largest cinema chain in the U.S., was expected to suspend operations at its more than 500 locations on Thursday, Oct. 8, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

A message on the Nickelodeon website directs people to visit the site for #SaveYourCinema, a campaign spearheaded by The National Association of Theatre Owners, which represents the owners of more than 35,000 movie screens in the U.S. Save Your Cinema provides people a way to contact their legislators about the issues facing movie theaters nationwide.

Whether other local theaters will follow Nickelodeon’s example remains to be seen. Zachary Adam, marketing director for Zyacorp, owner of Cinemagic theaters in South Portland, Saco, and Westbrook said his company discussed the possibility of temporarily closing theaters, but ultimately dismissed the idea.

“Together with the support of the communities we serve, we will get through this pandemic and we will get through to Christmas and 2021 where there is now an extraordinarily robust and excellent film schedule waiting to be shown,” Adam said via email Oct. 5.

Like Scott, he pointed to movie releases being held back due to “the New York government’s refusal to allow theaters to open,” as a primary issue for the industry. He said movie theaters need “Congress to pass legislation” to benefit it and other industries that have been “hardest hit” by the pandemic.

Cinemagic is engaging several promotions to attract customers at this time, including showing classic Halloween movies such as “Hocus Pocus” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Adam said he does not think the popularity of drive-in theaters during the pandemic cut into traditional movie theaters’ business much, although he admitted “every day is a challenge.”

According to its Facebook page, Falmouth’s Flagship Cinemas remain open with reduced hours, only screening films on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Janet Oprendek, vice president of operations for FP Cinemas, which owns Flagship, said the company had no comment for this article.

Ultimately, Scott said he wants patrons to know Nickelodeon Cinemas is “COVID free,” the theater was being vigilant about sanitation when it was open, and has done everything it can “to make sure everyone is safe.”

“Back in April this was supposed to be a two-week thing,” he said. “It’s always been a moving target, it’s still a moving target. Every day is a new day, you never know what’s going to happen.”