One of my favorite activities before Covid-19 arrived was catching a movie on a Saturday afternoon. When I finally decided to return last weekend, I was expecting a small audience because of the pandemic. What I was not expecting was a completely empty theater and lobby at Lakewood Ranch Cinemas. What was once a bustling attraction on the weekend had become a ghost town.

As the country's chain and local theaters struggle to remain open, box office sales have dropped significantly. Hollywood has put a pause on major film production, and theaters are left without new content to show. Additionally, audiences are afraid to return, due to looming concerns about the pandemic. With a shortage in new movies and moviegoers, will movie theaters as we know them survive?

"Many theaters are having issues, but we are slowly pushing through," says David Meiers, the marketing and outreach coordinator for Sarasota Film Society, the nonprofit that operates Lakewood Ranch Cinemas and Burns Court Cinemas. "The issue stems from Hollywood not releasing new films, putting us in a bind."

Burns Court and Lakewood Ranch Cinemas closed for three months due to the pandemic and reopened on June 5. The summer is usually peak season for mainstream theaters, but since the release of blockbuster movies, like those in the Marvel series, were canceled, ticket sales have gone down significantly. The theaters began playing digitally remastered classics, but people were still hesitant to return.

"It's the fear that's also keeping people from returning," says Meiers. "We're operating at 50 percent capacity and running deals where parties can rent out entire auditoriums to remain with their group."

At this time last year, both theaters would see between 3,000 and 5,000 guests per week. Now, both theaters are down to 20-70 guests per day, with about $80 in ticket sales per night. Burns Court would usually make $10,000-$15,000 each week, but now, ticket sales are averaging $300-$400 per week.

"Our numbers have been drastically low compared to last year," says Meiers. "October is usually a busy time for independent theaters, and we have a festival scheduled in November, which will be partially virtual."

Donations to the nonprofit have also fallen 75 percent. As small theaters, both Burns Court and Lakewood Ranch rely on donors, sponsorships from local businesses and audience memberships, all of which have been down. Meiers says there are, however, individual cases of generous donors, like one family who donated $1,000 after renting out an auditorium for their family. "It's nice to see some people keeping the arts alive," he says.

On the bright side, winter is typically a strong time for independent films. Meiers says Burns Court should see an influx of new releases and, hopefully, tourists and visitors wanting to watch these new films.

Other theaters are struggling, too. Parkway 8 Cinema, a budget theater known as the local "dollar theater," has permanently closed. CinéBistro, the luxury Sarasota movie theater with a dinner and drinks menu, has been shut down for an indefinite amount of time since its parent company filed for bankruptcy in April. The Sarasota location has plans to reopen, but no official date has been announced. 

"There will always be a way to revive theaters, but it all depends on how the pandemic plays out," says Meiers. "Everyone is being pushed into a digital age, with endless streaming options. But as long as the Academy Awards and Hollywood stick around, theaters will always be around, too."

To learn more about the Sarasota Film Society, click here or call (941) 955-3456.

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