Cleveland Cinemas feels full force of Covid-19’s impact


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Although movie theaters are expected to survive the pandemic, they’re having a rough time. We recently talked to Jon Forman, owner of Cleveland Cinemas, about the hit his business is taking during the Covid-19 pandemic and how longtime supporters and patrons can help

Cleveland Cinemas, which follows strict CinemaSafe Covid-19 Guidelines, announced yesterday that they were closing the Cedar-Lee and Chagrin Theaters until Christmas, when they will reopen with a new slate of movies including Wonderwoman 1984. Private rentals are still available. The Apollo and Capitol Theatres remain closed.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted your business? 

It’s been completely devastating. People are talking about bankruptcy. I don’t think people realize what a terrible situation we’re in, not just because of what’s going on in the cinema business, but what’s going on in the United States and how it’s impacting on all business, but in movie theaters in particular.

I’d love to give you a spin on this in a nice way, I cannot spin it. Movies are being pulled from release,theaters are closing, the theaters are filing for bankruptcy. I sat on a webinar yesterday about how to proceed with bankruptcy. Never in my 40 years of business did I ever think that I would be taking the time to educate myself about something like that. It was the furthest thing from my thoughts. So sorry to get emotional about the whole thing. But it is really awful.

The only film that anyone hoped might offer some ray of hope in the year, Wonder Woman 1984, is now being released simultaneously into theaters, as well as on a premium cable service. So in terms of any incentive for someone to go to theaters, all incentive is now thrown out the window. Because if I can stay home with my family of five or six and pay my subscription service to see this on TV, I come out way ahead. So, it’s pretty bad and I don’t know when it’s going to get better.

I noticed that Cleveland Cinemas has an online presence now where people can see films. Do you see that being any kind of substitute? 

In a word, no. We are doing that and so are others with very mixed success. If success is defined as an alternative for income, the answer is no, it is not generating meaningful income. Most theaters are doing it as we are, to keep a presence out there, to keep our audience engaged. The groups that have been successful around the country and here in Cleveland are groups that have a strong membership base, primarily nonprofit organizations, art museums, community based theaters, places like Cleveland Cinematheque here in Cleveland which has a very loyal following.

So, as of now you can’t look to the future and make any plans, can you?

That has probably been the most difficult part of where we are now. It’s the uncertainty about the future. So the answer is no, we can’t say, let’s look at March of 2021 and figure out a reopening plan. It’s not really possible, if for no other reason than movies releases are constantly being moved. I’m not exaggerating when I say constantly because movies have moved three and four times, and then oh, surprise, surprise, they’re taken off of a release schedule because now they’re going directly to streaming.

Streaming can be sold on Amazon Prime, sold to Hulu, sold to Netflix or someone’s own platform. We live in a world now where companies like Warner Brothers have relationships with HBO and this whole world of how businesses mesh, we don’t have that luxury. We don’t have our own streaming service. The films that we’ve been able to make available, which are admittedly limited in their appeal, are made available through a streaming service through the various distributors that we’re working with.

With the streaming services gaining popularity, did you have any kind of plans before this to try to get ahead of them prior to the pandemic?

We have great difficulty in trying to compete with them. There are many theaters that choose not to play films in theaters that are made available simultaneously on other platforms, but we don’t have that luxury. We’ve played many films, prior to the pandemic, that were streaming on Netflix and Amazon. We believe there are still people out there that prefer the experience of seeing a movie in a theater with other people. Yeah, that’s pretty silly now because now you don’t want to be in any place where there are other people, other than your immediate family.

Do you see yourself being able to hold out for a year or more?

That is a very good question that I do not know the answer to. A year would be a long time. I read this morning that Cineworld, which owns all Regal Cinemas, is exploring filing for bankruptcy and so has AMC. We’re not having those discussions, but we are aware it is an option, like everything else. I would not say we’re far from that. We’d like to think we can figure out ways to be more creative than having to actually go through the legal process, to allow us to get back and do business again.

What do you see the future of movie theaters? What will the theater itself look like?

I can see the public demanding more space between seats. I mean, some theaters have already gone to luxury recliners, which by their very nature, are spaced out. But we are doing what other theaters are doing, if you choose to go to a theater, no one’s sitting to the left of you, the right of you, or behind you or in front of you, that’s it now. Going forward, you really can’t justify not having all those seats available. Do you re-seat your theater? I don’t know. You can’t keep blocking them off forever. So at the point in time that they allow everyone to sit next to each other, like we used to do, I think theaters will return to that kind of state of normalcy. 

In addition to going to the movies, streaming and buying gift cards, how can people help?

Like many businesses, we are offering rentals. Either a film we are showing currently at the Chagrin or Cedar Lee, or, or say, you own Beetlejuice and you want to bring 10 friends to see that. We will rent you this theater and no one else would be in there except for you and your group. I’m happy to report that there’s been some great success with that. So for people who identify those people who they’re comfortable with being in the same space, we’re happy to accommodate, I don’t want to think that that’s going to be the future of movie going, but I do think it will remain popular.

Thank you for your time. I wish you the best of luck as a longtime theater buff and film goer.

Thank you very much. I appreciate your interest in doing this and I hope you have a reason to return to the movies soon.

John Canale is a freelance writer living in Lakewood.

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