Aid for Small Theaters Chris Vincenty Lisa Burton

Reel Pizza Cinerama, a charming two-screen theater in Bar Harbor, Maine, that serves up tasty pizza and tastefully curated films to tourists and locals alike, marked its 25th anniversary this year by shutting down.

“The day that I was supposed to be celebrating 25 years, I laid my entire workforce off,” says Chris Vincenty, who owns the business with his wife, Lisa Burton. “It was probably the hardest day that I’ve ever had. We have not shown a film since. It’s a very intimate, very small space, so trying to keep social distancing is just impossible.”

The $900 billion relief package that Congress passed Monday includes flickers of hope for small-theater owners like Vincenty and Burton, who for nearly three decades have watched couples go on first dates, community groups hold fundraisers in their auditoriums at no cost, and countless visitors share slices and beer after long days exploring nearby Acadia National Park.

They haven’t taken a salary since March, and have only been able to hire back three of the 14 people they laid off. The aid package is designed to help small theaters start paying employees again, among other expenses.

But in a surprising reversal of fortune, mom-and-pop operations like Reel Pizza fared better than large theater chains like AMC and Regal in the $900 billion deal.

The big chains will get nothing in the latest round of aid.

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“With multiple vaccines beginning to roll out, we see a bright light at the end of a very dark tunnel. There is a very real chance that our business can begin to return to normal in the spring,” said John Fithian, president of the trade group the National Association of Theater Owners.

NATO estimates that without federal aid, 70% of small and mid-sized movie theaters nationwide could file for bankruptcy or close permanently within months — which would results in 70,000 jobs being lost permanently.

“NATO continues to seek help for larger movie theater companies not covered by this legislation, which provide tens of thousands of jobs, and operate more than half the movie screens in the country, through tax relief and state aid,” Fithian said.

The $2 trillion stimulus package passed in March provided sizable benefits to companies of all sizes, but there was widespread criticism that it helped many large corporations while leaving smaller businesses in the cold.

NATO noted last week that there was little appetite in Congress for bailing out larger theater chains.

The new package includes roughly $15 billion in aid that would be split between 1,500 live-theater companies and about 3,500 movie theaters, according to NATO estimates.

NATO notes that the proposal initially covered only live venues, and would have included $10 billion. When movie theaters were added, it went up to $15 billion. The grants would cover costs like payroll, rent, utilities, and personal protective equipment.

It’s unclear how the money would be divided, so the following is speculative at this point. But if you assume the added $5 billion would go exclusively to movie theaters, that would average out to about $1.4 million for each. Of course, they won’t all receive the same amount: It would depend on the extent of their losses, which would depend on their number of employees, and other costs.

Small theaters have struggled to get by this year by cobbling together whatever revenue they could earn with grants and other aid. Vincenty and Burton’s business has received $132,000 in state and federal relief, plus $5,000 from Janus Films and the Criterion Collection’s Art-House America Campaign.

But their annual revenue would normally be $900,000, and this year it’s almost non-existent.

“We’re 80 percent off,” said Vincenty.

The couple are better off than countless other small theater owners. They’ve been able to make a little money selling takeout pizza, and showed films in a parking lot outdoors over the summer.

AMC, the country’s largest theater chain, said in October that it could run out of cash by early next year — which is now weeks away. The company’s stock plunged last week after it announced a plan to sell shares to raise money.

AMC and Cinemark, the third-largest domestic chain, have seen their stock prices fall roughly by half since late February, when COVID-19 first began pushing audiences out of theaters.

Cineworld, which owns Regal, the second-largest domestic chain, has fared a little better, and got some relief this month when it announced measures that will give it $750 million in extra liquidity.

We look forward to resuming our operations and welcoming movie fans around the world back to the big screen for an exciting and full slate of films in 2021,” said Mooky Greidinger, Cineworld’s chief executive, in a statement.

But Warner Bros. cut into all theater chains’ potential business this month when it announced that it would release all 17 of the films it plans for 2021 to HBO Max at the same time they are released in theaters.

Audiences will have the option of staying home to watch films like Dune, which would have had blockbuster potential in normal years. The decision has drawn pointed criticism from Dune director Denis Villeneuve and Tenet director Christopher Nolan, among others.

Between small businesses like Reel Pizza and the publicly traded chains like AMC are operators like B&B Theatres.

The Gladstone, Missouri-based company, led by three siblings who trace their business back to 1924, now owns or operates 49 locations with 429 screens in nine states — “making us the sixth-largest theatre chain in America and we believe the largest privately held,” in the words of executive vice president Brock Bagby.

“COVID has all but destroyed our business,” he told MovieMaker. “On March 17, the government shut us down and we were closed company-wide until June… Many industries are suffering but many business were allowed to stay open: Airlines never closed, most restaurants never fully closed as they were able to serve take out. Once restaurants reopened, they had their same offerings.

“Movie theatres, however, were forced to close entirely and then when reopened were faced with no product from Hollywood in the market as Hollywood moved all major movies to 2021 or 2022. When we reopened we had virtually zero product, resulting in over 80% loss of revenue.”

The company usually employs up to 750 people. Bagby says receiving some of the $15 billion aid package would help his company “offset the payroll and benefits of our staff members that we’ve tried so desperately to retain during this difficult time.”

As residents of Bar Harbor can attest, it’s easier to turn a small boat than a big one. For all it has suffered, Reel Pizza is more nimble than any chain.

“The big chains had overbuilt anyhow,” said Vincenty. “There was an excess of screens to begin with. So this is going to seriously take a big bite out of that. And the big chains are more reliant on big Hollywood product. I’m not.”

Reel Pizza, like other smaller theaters, can survive on art house fare, old classics, or blockbusters that it runs a month of six weeks after their initial run.

“Small theaters — someone of my size or a little small chain — I think those guys are going to be a little better off. But it’s still going to be really tough,” Vincenty said.

He and his wife both recently turned 60. Their kids just finished college. Their plan was to finish paying the 30-year-loan they took out 25 years ago to open the business, and maybe look for someone to take the theater over.

Instead, Vincenty says, he goes to work, goes home, and lives as frugally as possible.

“Treading water is all we’re trying to do, not to lose the property. If it requires me not getting paid for a year, that’s just what we’re going to have to do.”

Main image: Chris Vincenty and Lisa Burton at their concession counter at Reel Cinemas in Bar Harbor, Maine. Courtesy of Lisa Burton. A version of this story was originally published on Thursday, Dec. 17, before the stimulus package passed, and has been updated throughout.