WADENA, Minn. — COVID-19 precautions and the effects on the film industry since March have slowly been turning the lights out at movie theaters across the country. Theater giant Regal announced they would be closing 536 locations including some 7,000 screens as of Friday, Oct. 9.

At the family-owned Cozy Theatre in Wadena, Minn., movies continue to be shown, but attendance has been dismal since the onset of the virus in the state and the state mandates that came from it. It’s not uncommon for shows to have 10 to 15 people showing up. Yet, even at 25% capacity, the Wadena theater could welcome more than 150 people between the three screens.

Dave Quincer is the third-generation family member to run the Cozy in the last 97 years. Change is always a part of the business but regulations surrounding COVID-19 have not only lowered the capacity for the theater, it’s effectively shut down the new big-name films the business relies on to keep people coming out. Films such as "Wonder Woman 1984" were to come out in June, but after several moves, is now expected for Christmas.

Quincer said the big issue here is not that people are not supporting them. They came out in droves to buy popcorn and sodas when the theater could not show films back in March and April. But people want the new films with the experience that they can’t get anywhere but a theater.

In the absence of new films, early on Quincer was given access to a library of older films such as “Grease,” “Jurassic Park,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Smokey and the Bandit” and more. It drew some excited crowds. Quincer recalls hearing from one dad who remembered going to “Jurassic Park” in his youth and being able to go again, this time with his son, was a surprising treat.

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In addition to the Wadena theater, Quincer bought the Comet Theater in Perham, Minn., just last year. Attendance at both locations has been slim; in at least one instance, the projector was shut off when no one showed for a show in Perham.

The saving grace has been the drive-in theater for Quincer, who chose to buy the Starlite Drive-In Movie Theatre in Litchfield, Minn., five years ago.

Vehicles are spaced out throughout the drive-in area at the Starlite in Litchfield.
Photo by John Piepkorn
Vehicles are spaced out throughout the drive-in area at the Starlite in Litchfield. Photo by John Piepkorn

“Five years ago when we bought the drive-in my colleagues thought I was crazy. Five years later they all wish they had a drive in,” Quincer said. “There is six in the state. All of them did well.”

The Starlite opened up May 15 showing "Grease" and "Footloose." It was very well received. In that opening weekend they welcomed 841 admissions and 953 for the second weekend. One recent release, "Tenet," did better in four days at the drive-in than four weeks in the Cozy.

“So that tells you how bad the indoor theater business is right now. And it’s not just us,” Quincer said.

Theaters in Milaca and Breckenridge recently closed doors. If things don’t change, more of the small-town Minnesota theaters will likely follow suit. In Park Rapids, the doors have remained closed since the onset of COVID-19 in the state. The business’s voicemail states they will open again soon “because the show must go on.”

Unfortunately for drive-ins, colder days will soon shut down the outdoor business. It’s already pushing beyond the usual closure, which typically happens the first weekend in October. Last year, the drive-in experience ended by the second weekend when it snowed. On Thursday, Oct. 8, Quincer was headed to the drive-in to see if it needed just one more grass mowing before the end of the season. Cold temperatures capable of freezing his water sources typically make closure necessary. He said if people keep coming in the cold, he’d find a way to make it work.

Factors working against the theaters

The movie theater industry is in big trouble right now,” Quincer said. “It’s not the consumers’ fault, it’s more the supply. It seems they are doing everything they can to self-destruct.”

Major markets for the film industry such as New York are not opening theaters so the film industry does not have the same strong market as normal. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sept. 16 that theaters are not yet ready to reopen. That was with a statewide positivity rate for COVID-19 of 1%.

It’s a tricky situation as the major motion picture company does not get the funding to produce the film if the investors don’t think the sales for the picture will give them a return on their investment. But without the new films, a large audience has little reason to come out to the movies.

“It’s been very frustrating dealing with the studios,” Quincer said. “We’d plan for (new films) to open and then they’d move again.”

They ended up only getting B-list new films after reopening, and that was not until August.

A blockbuster movie that was to be out earlier in the year, “Mulan,” was pulled from theatrical release and moved to streaming. For $30 you can watch it in your home with a Disney+ subscription. That approach has not been super successful, Quincer said.

“I hope the studios are realizing that the streaming model is not a sustainable model for them either,” Quincer said.

Encouraging highlights

Quincer is encouraged by directors who have stood up in support of theaters and the need to release films first to that platform.

Quincer presses the point that they are getting some new films in and they still toss in the occasional old favorites, such as the 1993 Disney film “Hocus Pocus” this week. And there is plenty of room to attend and remain safe.

“People should not be concerned about coming out to the movies,” Quincer said. “It’s not unsafe to be out at the movies.”

Quincer appreciates the support they have been shown in this time. He is encouraged by those that haven’t stopped coming including a group of seniors from Menahga, Minn., that make a point to come every weekend.

Quincer feels there is not much he can do to improve the situation that is slowly eating away at the bottom line.

“Despite all that, I am still optimistic,” Quincer said. “I hope things will change a bit.”