Local movie theaters practicing wait and see approach
— Created June 17, 2020 by Kathy Reed
By Kacie Jo Voeller
After months of closure in the wake of COVID-19, certain businesses are gradually starting to open their doors. Movie theaters, museums, libraries and more will be allowed to open once Phase III of Washington’s “Safe Start” approach begins, and in Island County, Phase III is near. For two local theaters, the next phase will not bring immediate reopening, but preparations to bring back movies for local audiences are in motion.
John Solin, owner of Oak Harbor Cinemas, said there are many considerations when it comes to reopening.
“We will not be opening instantly right after Island County goes to Phase III,” he said. “We just feel that even though we can open, I do not know if the public is ready yet to go to a movie theater.”
Bill Willeford, who owns The Clyde Theatre in Langley along with his wife, Lynn, said while the theater is making preparations to safely open, the timeline is still to be determined.
“We are doing some of the things we need to do before we can open in terms of figuring out how many people we can fit and setting up touchless payment and touchless hand sanitizing, that sort of thing,” he said. “We are not in a huge rush to open; it is my opinion that given the demographic for South Whidbey Island that there will not be a lot of people anxious to take the risk of going to a theater early on in Phase III.”
In addition to being unsure of how much public interest there will be for returning to movies, Solin said another challenge is at hand for reopening. While open theaters can play older movies, many theaters in major markets including Los Angeles and New York remain closed, and film companies have few new releases planned for July, Solin said.
“It is literally week by week to see what the film companies are doing and for the past two weeks there have been no new developments on other film companies releasing new movies,” he said. “They (new movies) are out there, they are ready to be released, they have a backlog, so to speak, of everything that was supposed to play in March, April, May and June, but have not put firm dates to them. Most of those that were slid have tentative August dates and so there is just a scarcity of films to play.”
Willeford said, in addition to a shortage of new films to show at The Clyde, the number of people allowed in the theater will affect reopening.
“People want to go to the movies, but I am not sure that a lot of people will want to go to the movies until there is a vaccine,” he said. “And it is also the case that if we are only allowed 25 percent capacity, it might not make financial sense for us to be open.”
Solin said trying to balance the financial aspects and demand for movies has an impact on reopening Oak Harbor Cinemas as well.
“We are going to open as soon as we have product and as soon as we think we can determine there is a way that we can still open and be able to financially survive with a much smaller number of people initially,” he said. “We just have to figure out when that is and we just hope the public will support us when we do so, so we can continue to offer the best movies possible.”
In Langley, even though the doors to the theater have been closed, The Clyde is still making a difference in the community with its Magic Change Jar, Willeford said. The jar, which normally sits on the concession counter, is for donations to rotating charities in south Whidbey. The theater, along with four local business partners, each match the donations up to $250. Through the Virtual Magic Change Jar campaign that continued in place of normal donations after the theater closed to patrons, Willeford said $5,000 was raised for Good Cheer Food Bank.
“Lots of times, the patrons donate more than that and they certainly did for the Virtual Magic Change Jar, so that is how we were able to raise so much money to help feed our neighbors,” he said.
During the closure, Oak Harbor Cinemas has continued renovations. Solin, who opened Oak Harbor Cinemas in 1981 and recently bought the business back after selling it in the 90s, said when the public is ready to return to the movies, they will be able to enjoy improvements ranging from new luxury reclining seats to a new concession counter. Solin said in addition to its renovations, the theater will also be looking to keep safety a priority when the decision to reopen is made.
“We have purchased all the CDC recommended cleaning supplies and disinfectants,” he said. “We will follow all guidelines for making the entire cinema safe for everyone and part of that is we strongly suggest that everyone wear masks whenever possible. There will be multiple hand sanitizing stations and we will be wiping down surfaces in the auditoriums between shows and the same process in the lobby while they are playing. Just remember to wash your hands with soap and water before and after coming to the movie or any other restaurant or business.”