ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — The spread of the COVID-19 virus took away many distractions that people use to get through life. There's no more turning on the game or heading out to the bar with friends. You can't enjoy a nice book for a few hours inside a coffee shop or shop at the local stores on a breezy Saturday morning.
Many businesses are taking a hit, and movie theaters are not immune, the Midway 9 Theatre in Alexandria among them. For the foreseeable future, all Cinema Entertainment Corp. theaters aren't open. Not only are the movies that were currently showing no longer available on the big screen, but most blockbuster release dates have been postponed.
When the initial delays and cancellations began a few weeks ago, CEC theaters around the Midwest did everything they could to keep the doors open.
"When the governor recommended that people shouldn't be in crowds of 50 or more, we adjusted our seating to accommodate," CEC Theatres Vice President Tony Tillemans said. "Our last weekend was actually pretty good saleswise, but then we got the order to shut down. Ultimately, it came down to the studios that moved their release schedules."
Midway 9 was one of the theaters that remained open as long as it could.
"People continued to come to the movies," Midway 9 Manager Colleen Ellerbrook said. "As a company, we implemented social distancing and other safety measures to keep everybody healthy. Once the governor said we needed to close, we closed."
The yearly box-office totals don't rely on the best movies, but instead the ones that appeal most to people. Films such as "Black Widow," "No Time To Die," "Mulan" and many more were set to release in the spring. Now, they've been delayed to the fall or have yet to find a debut date.
"A lot of the pressure for the studios to move the dates didn't come from where the U.S was going to be, but instead how the movies would do overseas," Tillemans said. "They knew that China's 70,000 screens were closed, and that's a lot of money they're not making. In comparison, the U.S. only has 40,000 screens. It wasn't a surprising decision."
In January and February, China's box-office total is generally around the $1.5 billion mark. This year, the total only eclipsed $220 million in the two-month span. Because one of the largest film audiences in the world couldn't go to the theaters, Hollywood pulled the plug on major motion pictures.
Once the trickle-down effect hit the U.S., the inevitable closings began.
"The studios don't want to set dates for the postponed movies and not meet them. They also have to take into account the movies that are being released on certain weekends," Tillemans said.
"Look at a movie like "Mulan," which would do very well in China's market. They don't want to release that on the same weekend as a movie like "Wonder Woman 1984." They only get one chance to open a movie, and they don't want only a third of the people seeing it that usually would."
While blockbusters are waiting to find a date in the coming months, movie studios are taking a different approach with films that were already in theaters. "The Invisible Man," "Onward," "Bloodshot" and "The Hunt" went straight to digital release platforms. Movie fans can rent them for 48-hour periods for $20.
"Studios didn't have a place to put these movies," Tillemans said. "One of the concerns we've had is, will studios do this in the future after this is done? We haven't gotten the indication that will happen, but we just don't know yet. It's a different time right now.”
Tillemans doesn’t see it happening, since the model of putting movies in theaters before going to digital platforms has worked well in the past.
One reason studios would continue to put lower-budget movies in theaters is ticket sales.
"The studios get the lion's share of the ticket sales, so they know how much they're getting," Tillemans said. "Once a movie is out of the theaters, movies become easier to pirate or groups will rent them at once to save money. Disney has been protective in saying that they want to keep using the theaters first for the theatrical aspect."
When it's all said and done, Tillemans believes that all CEC theaters will go back to business as usual.
"The good thing is that all of the movies that are delayed will become available," he said. “There's going to be a lot of customers that want to see them. So once we are open, our industry should do very well."
In the meantime, Ellerbrook is taking things day by day, and looks forward to when everything is back to normal.
"We all need to get out and enjoy ourselves," she said. "Whether it be movies, bowling or going out, we are sociable beings. Depending on what the film companies put out will determine our business.
“I miss our guests. I miss my staff. We are like a family, and it's difficult not interacting with everyone."