By ANDREW MCGINN
At this point, it’s hard enough to remember April, let alone April of 2019.
But on April 26, 2019, the line of excited moviegoers at the Sierra Community Theatre for what would be the year’s biggest movie — “Avengers: Endgame” — actually snaked out the door and down the sidewalk.
Within a week, and with just one showing of the Marvel blockbuster nightly, the Sierra had reaped $4,145 in ticket sales and sold $3,970.75 in concessions. Additionally, the nonprofit theater netted $344 in donations from a community just grateful to still have a first-run movie theater in its midst.
A year later, at movie theaters everywhere, it’s truly as if Thanos snapped his fingers while wielding the Infinity Gauntlet, disintegrating business as they knew it.
Like all theaters, the Sierra spent this past April darkened on the governor’s orders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. But when the Sierra finally reopened the first week of June, a showing of “Back to the Future” did just $69 in ticket sales and (checks and double-checks notes) zero in concessions.
And when the studios do see fit to dole out a new release, it’s like handing a Band-Aid to a man whose arm has just been torn off at the shoulder. The first week of business at the Sierra for “Bill & Ted Face the Music” in August made $386 in ticket sales and $525.50 in concessions, according to internal data.
The second week was “abysmal,” to quote Sarah Nicholson, the theater’s executive director, with attendance by just 16 people over the entire second week.
An additional $235 in donations that first week and $164 the second week were undoubtedly appreciated — and donations, unlike ticket sales, don’t have to be split with the studios, which customarily get a cut between 55 and 60 percent.
In short, the Sierra is starring in a disaster movie of its very own, and the odds don’t look good for a proper Hollywood ending.
The board that governs the historic theater is projecting that, by December, the Sierra Community Theatre will be broke.
“If things don’t improve, we may not see 2021,” confessed Nicholson, a Jefferson native. “That sounds terribly dire, but we’ve run a lot of different scenarios.”
The Sierra likely won’t be alone.
Without a congressional lifeline, 69 percent of small- and mid-sized movie theater companies will be forced to file for bankruptcy or close permanently — say nothing about locally owned and operated single-screen theaters, such as the Sierra — according to a joint letter dated Sept. 30 to Senate and House leadership from the National Association of Theatre Owners, the Directors Guild of America, the Motion Picture Association and a who’s who of directors and producers, including Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and Martin Scorsese.
The letter asked that Congress use unallocated funds from the CARES Act or enact new proposals to save the theater industry.
Even the largest of theater chains are struggling amid the pandemic, with Regal Cinemas last week closing all 663 of its theaters temporarily, impacting 40,000 employees in the U.S.
In states like Iowa, where movie theaters are operating at mostly normal, there are precious few new releases to attract patrons — in part, The New York Times reports, because of the state-mandated closure of theaters in New York State, a major box office market.
Summer 2020 came and went with nary a blockbuster, with the season’s superhero offerings — “Black Widow” and “Wonder Woman 1984” — delayed.
Posters inside the Sierra still herald the coming of “Soul,” but Variety reported last week that the newest animated Pixar feature will be skipping theaters altogether and instead be available for streaming on Disney Plus beginning Christmas Day at no additional cost to subscribers.
As a result, the domestic box office as of Oct. 12 was down 78 percent from where it was in 2019, and 79.2 percent from where it was in 2018. Last year, “Avengers: Endgame” went on to gross more than $858 million domestically.
What the Sierra wouldn’t give now to replicate the success of, say, “Frozen II” from the fall of 2019.
Its two-week engagement in Jefferson made a combined $13,530 in ticket sales and concessions, according to internal data, and was seen by 1,147 people.
By comparison, a recent one-week, 40th anniversary presentation of “The Empire Strikes Back” at the Sierra made a combined $1,104 in ticket sales and concessions, and was seen by 70 people over the course of its run — and that was deemed by Nicholson to be a seasonal high.
But even if “Black Widow” had been released as originally scheduled, the question remains — would anyone have come?
For theaters, the elephant in the room is only about 120 nanometers in size. Despite reassurances by some politicians, coronavirus is still widely regarded as a clear and present danger.
“Some (patrons) are wary to come back,” Nicholson explained, “and they’ve said as much.”
“Some board members have not come back to the theater,” said Tom Wind, current board president.
With seating capacity for 231, they said, social distancing is virtually guaranteed these days.
Attendance at the Sierra is down to an average of 36 per week, compared to 208 per week in 2019 and 241 in 2018. The theater has gone dark on Mondays and Tuesdays as a result.
The answer, Wind hopes, is a multimedia blitz to win back the hearts and minds of the community.
With full board approval, phase one of a planned campaign, according to Wind, will tout the aggressive efforts of staff to mitigate spread of COVID-19.
“We’ve upped our game on sanitation,” Wind said, adding that the board is also investigating how to increase the amount of fresh air in the auditorium, and is even weighing the cost of a fogger to disinfect the theater.
He predicted it may be another 15 months before normalcy returns.
“We’ve got to survive for 15 months,” Wind said. “There’s no way you can survive for 15 months with that number of people coming. We have to impress on our customers that we’re going above and beyond.”
Through videos and other promotional materials, the campaign would emphasize the staff’s nightly sanitation regimen. Masks would also be required until patrons took their seats.
“You have to go overboard,” he said. “What makes people feel comfortable? You’ve got to show people what it is you’re doing.”
Compounding the Sierra’s problem is the fact that the board is the caretaker of a 136-year-old building — one of the oldest, continuously operated entertainment venues in Iowa.
Built in 1884, those walls have witnessed everything from minstrel shows to silent films to the latest and loudest action flicks.
When the theater was finally entrusted to the care of the community in 2012 — having been part of the Des Moines-based Fridley chain since 1969 — initial fundraising efforts were so successful, according to Wind, that the board was able to create a reserve fund for repairs.
That reserve fund is now rapidly being depleted, he said. This past summer, the auditorium’s two air conditioners went kaput. They managed to replace one, he said, and it’s been sufficient to cool the small crowds in attendance. But more recently, a sizeable section of stucco fell off the building.
Popcorn and other concessions are available to go anytime the theater is open, which has helped offset some lost revenue. Donations have also picked up in earnest, with $7,433 in giving received between May and the end of September.
“This community,” Wind said, “doesn’t want to see this theater die.”
This isn’t the first time movie theaters have stared down the barrel of an existential threat. In the autumn of 1956, the owners of Jefferson’s then-Iowa Theatre — Pioneer Theatre Corp. — held a public meeting in hopes of rallying people to take a “greater community interest” in the theater. Theaters at that time in smaller towns were closing by the hundreds, in part due to competition from TV.
The era’s (eerily similar) political climate probably didn’t help in winning back audiences, either.
The nation at that time was in the grips of the “red scare,” with the House Un-American Activities Committee actively investigating alleged communist infiltration of the movie industry.
Gallup — the organization founded by local boy George Gallup — polled Americans in 1947 on whether Hollywood writers who refused to say if they were members of the Communist Party should be punished.
While only 36 percent of “white-collar” workers said yes, 62 percent of farmers said yes.
Still, Nicholson takes heart in knowing the local theater pulled through all those years ago.
But in one, major way, times have changed — the Sierra Community Theatre no longer answers to a CEO in another city.
“We can still fix this,” she said. “It’s up to us.”