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Western Kentucky cinemas rebound with summer showings

Cheri Theatres building exterior
Dustin Wilcox
Cheri Theatres in Murray, Kentucky, in October 2020.

Following a year of financial hardships, regional cinemas are starting to see more consistent attendance of new movie showings.

Cinemas saw a 71% decline in box-office revenue last year. But things seem to be turning around, with the recent “Black Widow” movie earning $80 million domestically during its opening weekend and setting a new pandemic-era record.

Chris Hopkins, general manager at Cheri Theatres in Murray, said there has been a significant increase in attendance compared to this time last year.

“I could see the business, more people coming back in our parking lot,” Hopkins said. “I even had a friend of mine the other day who drove by and said, ‘Gosh, it sure was nice to see your parking lot full again.’”

The Show Must Go On

Cinemas, like any business not deemed “life-sustaining” by the Kentucky government, were required to shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in March 2020. Around the same time, many studios opted to delay the releases of their upcoming films.

After reopening at limited capacities in June, regional venues such as WK Cinemas in Hopkinsville, Cheri Theatres in Murray and Maiden Alley Cinema in Paducah compensated for the lack of new films by showing classic films as long as they could.

Meiko Hardin, general manager at WK Cinemas, said this period was “rough.” Patronage dropped from about 60 people per show to six people per day.

Rebecca Madding, executive director at Maiden Alley Cinema, said the biggest problem last summer was audiences’ growing fatigue toward these older films.

“As much as I say, ‘Yeah, people love to come to films that they have seen a million times,’ they like that for once a month or something like that, which is how we used to do it,” Madding said, referring to the cinema’s classics series.

This lack of fresh content had a direct impact on patronage last year. Madding said there were some showings last summer to which no one came, but showings haven’t dropped “below double-digits” this summer.

Not all cinemas were able to push through the COVID-tinged summer. Capitol Cinemas in Princeton closed its doors after 24 years of business due to the financial strain imposed by the virus, even after dropping ticket prices to $3.

Blockbusters Abound

Hopkins of Cheri Theatres said the influx of viewership this summer is due to a greater number of “tentpole” releases and patrons’ increased comfort leaving their homes.

About 150 people attended the single-screen premiere of “Space Jam: A New Legacy” at Cheri Theatres, and Black Widow likely exceeded that total across its multiple-screen premiere. Furthermore, Cheri Theatres saw as many patrons before the Fourth of July as it did in 2019, signaling a return to pre-pandemic attendance.

Hopkins said he even noticed an uptick this summer compared to September 2020, when Tenet was touted as the “first big movie” returning to theaters by many in the industry. Tenet earned about $20 million domestically during its opening weekend, according to Variety.

“I could actually see a bit of a difference when they lifted the restrictions in the state of Kentucky [in June],” Hopkins said. “Now that we have more people vaccinated, I think that it’s hard to look back at Tenet and say, ‘Well, it wasn’t very good because it just wasn’t a good movie.’ People just weren’t ready to get out then, I don’t think.”

Maiden Alley Cinema is an “art house,” primarily hosting independent and foreign films as opposed to mainstream blockbusters. Yet “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” sold out its single-screen, 114-seat premiere.

“The Anthony Bourdain doc will stream in probably a couple months, and so people do have the option to wait and stream that, but because we’re creating something special, because we’re creating an event, we are enticing them to come to Maiden Alley and come see it on the big screen, where it belongs anyway,” Madding said.

Competing Screens

In December, Warner Bros. announced its entire slate of films for 2021 would be simultaneously released in theaters and streamed on HBO Max. Disney and Universal pursued similar release strategies on Disney+ and Peacock, respectively.

Streaming availability is directly impacting box office returns in that it’s harder to achieve pre-pandemic attendance, Hardin of WK Cinemas said. She described the current outlook as “50%” back to normal.

Hopkins of Cheri Theatres said the day-and-date release of new films on streaming services has hurt in the short-term but will likely hurt less by the end of the year.

“People will still want to get out and go out to the movies,” Hopkins said. “A lot of people that are coming in tell me, ‘I can watch anything at home, but it’s about getting out of the house.’ Kind of like my dad’s always said, ‘Everybody still builds a kitchen in their house if they build a house, but they still go out to eat at restaurants.’”

Some independent films have also adopted this model. Summer of Soul, a documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, debuted on Hulu the same day it reached cinemas. According to Box Office Mojo, Summer of Soul earned more than $800,000 in its opening weekend.

Madding of Maiden Alley Cinema said her target demographic skews older and is less inclined to stay at home.

​​“We aren’t too worried, so to speak, like the AMCs and the Cinemarks and the Cheris would be about streaming and competition just because, one, their movies don’t really pertain to us because and we wouldn’t play them anyway, and also, we have the ability to create an event and entice them to come out of their homes and come see us anyway,” Madding said.

For the documentary about Anthony Bordain, Madding invited Sarah Bradley from Paducah-based restaurant Freight House to create unique concessions and a representative from Compass Counseling to discuss mental health services.

Hardin said the best way to bring people back to theaters is through truly exclusive content.

“As long as they keep streaming, I know a whole lot of people who are staying home,” Hardin said.

Staple Of The Community

With pandemic-induced financial strains becoming less pronounced, some in the film business have reflected on the perceived importance of a local cinema in a community.

Hopkins of Cheri Theatres said the outpour from Murray and beyond has continually struck him since his cinema reopened last year.

“People are just coming back in, and just going, ‘I’m just so glad you’re still here,’” Hopkins said. “That makes you feel a lot better once you hear those things from your customers, going through such a trying time. We’ve had people that were here during all the old movies, and they never stopped coming, and they’re still coming back.”

As an art house, Madding said the Maiden Alley motto is to show “movies that matter,” a goal which became that much more crucial during the pandemic.

“We’re playing films that spark conversations, whether that’s a documentary or an independent film,” Madding said. “I think that’s very vital in a community such as Paducah especially, that has such a vibrant arts community.”

Dustin Wilcox is a television production student at Murray State University. He graduated from Hopkinsville High School in 2019.
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