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Movie Theaters Owners Hope St. Louis Audiences Return In 2021

The Chase Park Plaza Cinemas is a part of St. Louis Cinemas.  Operator Harmon Moseley said when the theater reopens, it will implement safety measures to protect customers. May 1, 2020
Chad Davis | St. Louis Public Radio
Chase Park Plaza Cinemas owner Harman Moseley said he understands why studios are changing their release strategies. But he hopes people regain their theater-going habit once it's safe to return.

St. Louis-area movie theater owners face an uncertain 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered movie theater doors across the region as stay-at-home orders brought their business to a halt. With a weary public largely keeping close to home to avoid the virus, theater owners worry how the financial crisis will affect business. Some movie studios have announced that they will release new films on streaming services the same day they’re released in theaters.

“Make no mistake, there’s going to be a change in the exhibition business,” said Harman Moseley, the owner of the Chase Park Plaza Cinemas. “It will never be what it was.”

Moseley shut down the Moolah Theatre and Lounge in April due to lost revenue. He said the business was already facing financial difficulties, but the pandemic exacerbated them. Moseley reopened the Chase theater this summer for the release of the film “Tenet,” but like many movie theater owners across the country, he found that reopening did not bring in crowds following months of delays and rising coronavirus cases.

“The largest single show we had was for 13 people, and the most attendance we had on any one day was 100,” Moseley said. “Those were just not numbers that made it economically sustainable to stay open.”

The Chase theater is still available for private events. Moseley said he isn't sure when he'll reopen the theater, but hopes to do so by the spring or summer, if it's safe to do so.

He worries about the theater’s future, given that some movie studios are changing their distribution strategies.

Warner Bros. announced in December that its complete slate of 2021 movies will arrive on its streaming service, HBO Max, and movie theaters on the same day. Moseley said while the decision makes financial sense for the studios, he fears it could lead more people to watch new releases at home.

Still, he hopes people regain their theater-going habit.

“That's a tough model for a movie theater to compete with,” Moseley said. “There have always been people that want to see something early first, and the movie theaters have capitalized on that. And so that makes it very hard.”

Online streaming of new releases also could hurt theaters that had a successful year, said Steve Bloomer, owner of the Skyview Drive-In in Belleville, Illinois. He said his theater saw success in 2020 as moviegoers liked the option of watching from their cars to avoid large crowds. But he doesn’t know how online streaming will affect his business.

“Some movies that don't do well in the theaters, I don't have any problem with a movie studio coming out, say three weeks after the release,” Bloomer said. “If they're losing money on everything they come out with, they're not going to survive either. So it needs to be a partnership where we're making money where we're doing well, and so are they.”

Bloomer and Moseley said while it's hard to predict how the pandemic will continue to affect the movie industry, they are optimistic about the future. Moseley hopes the coronavirus vaccine will bring people back out to the theaters.

“There is a chance that it could be a real Renaissance exuberance,” he said. “I don't know if that's going to be a sugar high or something that's going to last, but I'm hopeful for that.”

Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.