A new grant program from the Wisconsin Department of Administration is allocating ten million dollars to 54 theater operators throughout the state. Funding for the program is being pulled from Wisconsin’s share of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
According to the Department of Administration, the program provides about $14,600 in aid per eligible theater screen and the grants can be put towards pandemic-related costs including facility improvements to provide appropriate social distancing, cleaning and sanitizing.
George Rouman, President of the National Association of Theater Owners of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, says the funding will help many theater owners last through this winter. The association represents about one hundred independent and chain cinemas throughout Wisconsin.
Rouman says that had the state not come through with the emergency funding, more than two thirds of the Association’s independent and midsize theaters would have likely gone out of business by the end of January.
“This is huge. We have been battered, our industry was in a near-complete shut down for almost six months,” he says. “Then when we reopened we had varying levels of success and attendance.”
Rouman — whose family has owned and operated theaters in Rhinelander since 1921 — adds that local pandemic-orders limiting non-essential businesses were just one of the issues cinemas faced in recent months.
Most major studios have pushed their blockbuster releases into 2021, eliminating major revenue sources for theaters. And as the cinematic release schedule for 2020 has all but dried up, owners have been replaying classic hits in an attempt to draw viewers in.
“It’s desolate,” Rouman explains. “I feel like we have been completely abandoned by the studios. They’re not going to release a major product into an uncertain marketplace.”
Only once before has America’s theater industry undergone something similar to the COVID-19 pandemic — the 1918 flu epidemic. That public health crisis came as the nation’s movie industry was in its infancy.
According to Tino Balio, a Professor Emeritus of Communication Arts at UW-Madison and an expert on the history of American cinema, the 1918 pandemic ultimately didn’t leave a lasting impact on the industry.
“Throughout the 1920s, the film industry grew exponentially and it became well-entrenched and, during that period, there was a tremendous theater construction boom,” he says.
But, Balio makes that caveat that things are different this time around.
He says that, while the U.S. Theater industry will likely survive COVID as it did the 1918 pandemic, an increasing preference for at-home streaming services poses a much greater threat to American cinemas.
Movie studios, faced with an indefinite suspension of theatrical releases, have opted to debut and distribute blockbuster films directly to streaming services. Just yesterday, Warner Brothers announced that it would be pushing Wonder Woman 1984 out on HBO Max on December 25th — the same day the movie is scheduled to hit theaters.
“The industry is not only facing the dire impact of the COVID virus, but alternatives to the movie-going experience,” Balio says.
Marcus Cinemas — which owns and operates two locations in Madison — received about four million dollars through the state’s program. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, the Milwaukee-based theater chain is the fourth largest in the nation with 91 cinemas across 17 states.
Flix Brewhouse on Madison’s northeast side was also allocated about $132,000. But, shortly before the winners of the grant were announced, the company wrote on its webpage that they’ll be closed for the foreseeable future.
(Photo: Erik Witsoe / Unsplash)