Theater Atchison executive director Travis Grossman’s pandemic experience running a movie theater has not been great.
“There’s been Friday nights where I’m seeing 15 people come in and weekends that should have had 300 to 400 people are seeing anywhere from 80 to 175,” he said.
While big movies like “Wonder Woman 1984,” Tom Hanks’s “News of the World” and the surprise success of “The Croods: A New Age” brought some hope to the Atchison, Kansas, indie cinema the Fox Theater, business remains at a crawl.
“It’s been a big kick in the shorts,” he said.
With potential stimulus funding for independent music and movie theaters, Grossman is hoping help is on the way.
“From what I can tell, from what I can read in the paperwork, we have the potential to garner maybe around $200,000, which would be that magic number that we’d be close to what we lost at that point, in terms of a 12-month financial picture from when this stuff set in in March,” he said.
In December, Congress approved a stimulus relief package that included $15 billion in financial support to movie theaters and live event venues, also known as the Save Our Stages Act. Applications for the funding are expected to open soon. Grossman said it could be the lifeline the theater needs.
The relief bill has been in the works since summer 2020, when movie theaters saw some of the some of its biggest tentpole releases like “Black Widow,” “F9 (Fast & Furious 9)” and “Top Gun: Maverick” get pushed back at least a year.
The bill was written by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and given the thumbs up from organizations like the National Independent Venue Association.
“Independent venues were some of the first establishments to close down and will likely be some of the last to open. I refuse to sit by and let the music die, which is why I was proud to introduce the bipartisan Save our Stages Act,” Klobuchar said in a statement.
For independent theaters like the Fox Theater, the re-opened Hangar Theater in Maryville, Missouri, and the Screenland Armour in Kansas City, the funding would come as a lifeline to smaller cinemas starved of audiences because of the pandemic and safety precautions.
“This isn’t over by a long shot but this news almost made me cry. There may be hope,” Adam Roberts, manager at the Screenland Armour, said in a statement in December.
While theaters wait on stimulus money, they say they’re doing all they can to stop the bleeding. At the Fox and Armour theaters, people can rent out screens for private viewing parties. They’re also booking both new and classic releases.
For the Fox Theater, business has not been close to what was seen in pre-COVID times. Grossman said staff has been reduced and movie screenings were slashed from seven days to weekends only. He said government funding through PPP loans and state grants have helped float it through the rough times.
“We would go two, three, four weekends straight at loss before we’d find one weekend where (we would) break even. But it didn’t make up for the losses we’d already suffered. So we burned through all the reserves that we generated the year prior, plus some savings that we’d had,” he said.
There were thoughts of shutting the theater back down, Grossman said. But he also realized the ripple effect that would have on neighboring restaurants and decided to stick it out.
“(When government funding) came in, I thought ‘I want to be a good steward of it.’ The purpose of our organization is to be a cornerstone. If we shut down, it’s really going to really kill the foot traffic (in Atchison). So we, we just kind of buckled in and just kept going,” he said.
Thinking of the potential for money from the Save Our Stages Act, Grossman said it would be used for much-needed maintenance to the building, as well as help for its staff.
“(There’s) a lot of areas we could we get back to where we were, in addition to just go out find some more staff,” he said.
While the funding wouldn’t be available for big chains in the area like Regal Cinemas and AMC Theaters, Grossman said he hopes they are able to survive.
“As odd as it sounds, those big theaters, the AMCs, have to succeed in order for companies like mine to succeed, because Hollywood’s got no reason to make films for a three-screen theater in Atchison, Kansas. They need to make film for 600 theaters like AMC, and let them have a voice in it,” he said.