Drive-in movies are stop gap only for theaters wanting to reopen

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David Parlier, who purchased Ruby Cinemas with his wife, Holly, five years ago, stands with their five children in front of the marquis that has not publicized new movies since March.

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writers

After the shelter-in-place mandate went into effect this past spring, movie theaters nationwide closed. In order to generate some revenue, Ruby Cinemas on Georgia Road in Franklin, began offering weekend drive-through concessions and then weekend, drive-in, previously released movies. The practice continues as North Carolina’s governor Roy Cooper announced Sept. 1 that the state is currently in Phase 2.5, which conveys: “… movie theaters, indoor entertainment facilities, amusement parks, dance halls will remain closed.” 

However, at 2 p.m. on Sept. 30, Gov. Cooper announced that Phase 3 begins Friday, Oct. 2, and he will allow movie theaters in the state to finally reopen, to 30% capacity to start. For Ruby Cinemas, that means about 45-60 people in each of the four auditoriums. 

David Parlier, who purchased Ruby Cinemas with his wife, Holly, five years ago, said he hopes the governor’s move into Phase 3 is not too little too late for independently owned movie theaters like his own. In most other states, theaters have been for several weeks gradually reopening with safety measures in place such as social distancing, mask wearing, and limited audiences. However, since March, Parlier said Gov. Cooper’s office has not responded to any personal, business, or lobbyist questions and requests for information regarding North Carolina theaters.

Parlier said he is a member of the National Association of Theater Owners. 

“Lobbyists have tried for months to talk to the governor or someone in the governor’s office about the plight of movie theater businesses … when we can safely reopen, but no one – no one will talk to them.”

Parlier added that cinema owners have even tried to convey to the N.C. governor’s office information about CinemaSafe, a pandemic-motivated program, developed and supported by leading epidemiologists, that offers guidelines for a safe return to movie theaters. “As far as we know, the governor hasn’t even looked at it. It’s maddening,” said Parlier.  

As of July, Ruby Cinemas’ revenues were down 78%. Yet, Parlier pointed out that he must continue to pay monthly bills on the almost 40-year-old Franklin theater as well as pay employees. 

“The concessions, the drive-in movies, and now the theater rentals (10 people can rent each side of the theater for $10 each for private movie showings), have slowed down losses only slightly. We’re still leaking significantly, but these measures slowed the flow just a little.” 

With theaters reopening in neighboring states, Parlier has already seen a decrease in attendance for the drive-in movies and private screenings. “People want to see new releases. The community has been wonderful for months, awesome really, about trying to support us, but we can’t keep the drive-in movies going as it gets cold and the novelty of what we’ve had to offer during these last months is wearing off, understandably.”

Parlier did apply and was approved for an Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL), providing economic relief to small businesses and nonprofit organizations experiencing a temporary loss of revenue. Yet, the 30-year loan will have to be repaid. “So it just means I’m further in debt,” said Parlier. 

With the Sept. 30 Phase 3 announcement that movie theaters can open at 30% capacity, Parlier said Ruby may begin to attract business again and may survive “as long as Gov. Cooper doesn’t change his mind in a week or two and make us close our doors again.”

In an effort to ready Ruby Theater for reopening, Parlier and his staff have taped off two rows of seats between each open row. “So really we have about 10 feet of social distancing,” said Parlier. “We have sanitizing stations all over the theater, social distancing indicators on the floor in the lobby, and plan to wipe down and disinfect the theaters between shows. We’ve learned from studies that the risks are relatively low. So we are able to mitigate risk, but it’s like we’re in the dark about what the future holds. But the North Carolina theater owners are keeping the pressure on.”

He added, “Even if the governor would allow us to have 25% capacity, at least I could have 50 people in each theater.”

Opening back up for regular, new-release movies presents another logistical challenge because production companies have struggled since the pandemic began and the flow of new entertainment has been disrupted. 

“Based upon what’s happening in Los Angeles and New York City, some production companies are afraid to release some new movies because they want to show them at theaters that can get the good numbers,” he said. “Big studios are kicking some new releases down the road, but smaller studios may be perfectly content to get an average showing at this point.”

Parlier said he will be happy to see new movies once again listed with showtimes on the Ruby Cinemas roadside marquis.

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