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Theater owner has worries beyond lockdown

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SMITHFIELD — A reporter asked John Shallcross Jr. if he’d like to talk about his movie theater amid the coronavirus shutdown.

“I’d rather not,” he said. “I’m probably going to break into tears.”

He was kidding, maybe.

When he sat for a brief telephone interview on April 28, Smithfield Cinemas, his 10-screen movie theater, had not shown a film in 42 days.

“March 17,” Shallcross said, recalling the last day as easily as he might a birthday or anniversary.

Since then, the 10 screens have been dark, the numbers gloomy. Before closing its doors, Smithfield Cinemas lit up each of its 10 screens five times on Saturdays, four times on Fridays and Sundays, and three times a day Monday through Thursday, Shallcross said.

Doing some quick math, that means the theater canceled 1,560 screenings between March 17 and April 28. Shallcross put the revenue loss from ticket and concession sales at $250,000, or roughly $6,000 a day.

With no movies to show, Shallcross no choice but to lay off most of the theater’s 20 employees. “We kept the one full-timer on payroll,” he said. “The part-timers have applied for unemployment.”

Under Gov. Roy Cooper’s plan to reopen North Carolina in phases, the state’s movie theaters could resume showing films in early summer.

The problem, Shallcross said, is that theaters will have a dearth of new releases to show. “Warner Bros. on July 17 plans to release the movie ‘Tenet,’ ” he said, referring to a film from Batman director Christopher Nolan. “Then the following weekend, on the 24th, Disney is going to release ‘Mulan.’ ”

But that’s it for new films, Shallcross said. “Those are the only theatrical worldwise releases that are on the schedule right now,” he said.

“Even if we reopen, we don’t have any product to show,” he said.

Shallcross pointed to movie theaters in Georgia, which is allowing businesses to reopen as the state lifts restrictions it imposed to slow the coronavirus. “They said even though they could open, they were not going to reopen until they were able to ... determine what kind of product they’re going to be able to show,” he said.

The major studios have said they will open their vaults to theaters when they reopen, but Shallcross said theater owners aren’t sure that will help. “The industry wonders if people are going to come back to the theater and possibly expose themselves when they can see the same movies at home on TV,” he said.

Still, once the governor gives the green light, Smithfield Cinemas will begin gearing back up, Shallcross said. “It’s going to take us probably a week to 10 days to see if we can get our employees back,” he said.

“We’ve been in the process of mothballing the whole operation,” including shedding concessions that are nearing their expiration dates, Shallcross said. “So we would have to restock, resupply.”

Shallcross would also have to decide how his reopened theater would operate. “We’d have to determine whether we’re going to open all 10 auditoriums or maybe just five auditoriums and alternate rounds so that we have additional time to clean,” he said.

It’s hard to imagine any movie theater could resume business as usual right away, Shallcross said. “The thing of showing a two-hour movie and giving them 15 to 20 minutes to clean up and be ready to start another film right after that, right now, those days are gone,” he said.

If movie theaters reopen with limits on their capacity, Shallcross wonders how that would work. “There have been discussions that it might be 50 percent,” he said of each theater’s capacity. “And you would have them sit in like a checkerboard, nobody in front or back or beside anybody else.”

Shallcross sees problems there. “How do you enforce it? How do you police it?” he said. “A couple comes in, and they’ve been sitting side by side at home. ‘Why can’t we sit side by side at the movies?’”

Though he wishes Smithfield Cinemas could show movies, Shallcross said it’s much too early to say whether the decision to shutter much of the state’s economy was an overreaction. “Everybody wants to be a Monday morning quarterback, and it’s not Monday morning yet,” he said. “You’re trying to do the best you can with the knowledge that you have, and you err on the side of caution.”