Surviving on a mixture of loans, grants and alternative moviegoing options, Eugene’s independent Broadway Metro is one of many cinemas struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. With virtually every major film release being pushed to next year and people wary of returning to movie halls, there isn’t a clear future on the horizon for the movie theater business.
Just last year the Metro renovated its building to accommodate the customers that its downtown Eugene location couldn’t make room for. Adding three more screens as well as an on-site kitchen, the Metro could offer a wider variety of films as well as its own house-made food and cocktails. Now, and for the foreseeable future, it offers only very limited services.
On Aug. 31 the Metro reopened for screenings with limited capacity along with other theaters like Regal, following months of waiting for the green light from the state government. But after about a month, Regal announced closures of theaters nationwide, and the Metro returned to private screenings and a subscription movie rental and concessions delivery service.
Meanwhile, the David Minor Theater, another independent in Eugene, shut down in March and began to support itself by selling bikes. The former side hustle for owner Josh Goldfarb will now be a full-fledged bike business named 360 Cycles. Its grand opening was Nov. 28.
The Metro’s Managing Director Edward Schiessl describes socially distanced movie screenings as “completely unsustainable, even in a best-case scenario.” He explains that his business relies on selling 75 to 80 percent capacity on Friday and Saturday night, but under pandemic restrictions they were only allowed to book 10 to 15 percent and had to close at 10 pm.
The Metro required masks when not in your seat and wiped down all seats and surfaces between showings. Each theater had its own HVAC system that brought in outside air that never cycled through other auditoriums. Despite these precautions, the business coming in wasn’t enough.
A major problem for businesses like the Metro is the uncertainty of the future. “It’s hard to know how long our business needs to be able to hibernate,” Schiessl says. “The private rentals don’t bring in enough income to pay rent, but for now we’re bridging that deficit with loans and grants.”
The Metro’s survival has been helped by programs like the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, but that short-term support was exhausted in June. Now some limited grants from the Art-house American Campaign and the Coronavirus Relief Fund Cultural Support will help the Metro continue through the fall. “The stimulus bills so far have been short-sighted and impractical for most small businesses,” Schiessl says. Freezing payments for rent, loans and utilities would be a way in which the government could help, he says. “Preventing small businesses from operating while allowing creditors to continue to collect in full is extremely unfair and burdensome.”
As America confronts a third wave of the pandemic this winter many studios are opting to push the release of their films back or make available at home through to rent or to stream. Even with the upcoming theatrical release of Wonder Woman 1984, it’s unlikely to screen at the Metro considering the simultaneous streaming release on HBO Max for home viewers and limited capacity not being cost-effective. Schiessl was skeptical of there being a holiday movie season this year following the poor initial response to how the pandemic was handled in spring.
“It’s a chicken-egg scenario. Studios don’t want to release their A-list films to theaters until audiences come back, and audiences won’t come back until there are quality films to see.” As for when normality might return, he’s optimistic about summer 2021 and the time following a vaccine. “Movie theaters and concert venues probably have the longest road to recovery,” he says. “If this past year has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.”