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The Future Of Iowa Movie Theaters

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With the possibility of cinemas permanently shutting down across the country, the future of Iowa movie theaters remains uncertain.

On March 17, the State of Iowa issued an order for all movie theaters to close their doors in an effort to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Two months later, on May 20, that proclamation was lifted, allowing theaters to reopen with new safety regulations in place.

Many national theater chains reopened in June, like the Cinemark multiplex in Davenport. Meanwhile, smaller theaters have taken a different course.

Fleur Cinema & Cafe, located in Des Moines, has remained temporarily closed since March. According to a posting on their website, they are “evaluating the situation on an ongoing basis.”

FilmScene, a nonprofit cinema with two locations in Iowa City, has been closed to the public since March but has introduced new forms of programming. They now offer a virtual cinema, private theater rentals and curbside concessions.

According to Andrew Sherburne, cofounder of FilmScene, the new programming cannot substitute the level of engagement needed to sustain the theater.

“All of those things have been very well received, but they are not a replacement for the revenue that is generated at our theaters during a regular year,” Sherburne said. “There is a lot of overhead at a movie theater. It depends on regular traffic to keep our business open, and we just haven’t had that.”

Davenport 53rd 18 + IMAX, the Cinemark located in Davenport, also provides the option to rent individual screens, allowing up to 20 attendees per auditorium. According to a recent announcement, Cinemark has sold more than 100,000 Private Watch Parties this year.

In accordance with the State of Iowa’s May proclamation, Cinemark locations, as well as FilmScene, have increased their safety and sanitation efforts for employees and guests. Masks are required, audience capacity is limited, physically distanced seating is enforced and facilities are being cleaned more frequently.

According to a Cinemark public relations representative, “Cinemark is raising the fresh air rate by adding refresh and replace cycles and utilizing supply fans to increase total volume of fresh, outside air flowing into our theaters.”

Sherburne is looking to reopen FilmScene in 2021 but has not announced a specific date. He said the public health situation is not yet suitable for welcoming patrons back.

“Everybody that we talk to wants the same thing we do, which is a return to the movie-going experience that we all grew up with and that we all treasure,” Sherburne said. “It’s a part of American life and something that I think will give people a sense of a return to normalcy when we’re able to get back to watching movies together again.”

The holiday season normally coincides with new theatrical releases, drawing big crowds to movie theaters of all sizes. However, due to safety precautions being exercised by theaters and distributors, there are fewer options available for those who want to experience a movie on the big screen.

Many blockbusters set for a 2020 release were postponed until next year. These delays, coupled with Warner Bros.’s recent decision to make their 2021 lineup available on HBO Max, creates a new challenge for already struggling cinemas.

According to a Cinemark public relations representative, “In light of the current operating environment, Cinemark is making near-term booking decisions on a film-by-film basis.” They do not currently have plans to permanently close any of their Iowa locations.

Sherburne expressed concern for the preservation of the industry in response to the Warner Bros. announcement.

“We love movies of any shape or size, and on any screen, but we still think that the big screen experience is something that is unparalleled,” Sherburne said. “Just like going to a live music show is different than listening to your favorite album at home, there is something about being with a crowd. There’s something about those communal experiences that really sets it apart.”

With the possibility of cinemas permanently shutting down across the country, the future of Iowa movie theaters remains uncertain.

Editor's note: FilmScene is among NPR's financial supporters.

Nicole Baxter is a Sales Assistant and covers film for Iowa Public Radio.