The movie theater industry continues to be hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with Regal theaters, including the one at the Shops at Stonefield in Albemarle County, becoming the latest victims.
Cineworld Group Plc — which owns Regal, Cineworld and Picturehouse movie theaters in the United States and Europe — said Monday that 536 Regal cinemas in the U.S. and 127 Cineworld and Picturehouse venues in the U.K. will temporarily close beginning Thursday.
The company said the postponement of the release of the latest James Bond film left it with few blockbusters to attract customers during the pandemic. Some 45,000 employees are affected.
No further details about the Regal Stonefield Stadium 14 were available Monday.
Meanwhile, the Charlottesville area’s other cinemas are getting creative in trying to keep revenue flowing, offering theater rentals as a way to weather the storm.
The Violet Crown Cinema has been closed since the pandemic struck the U.S. in March. Located on the Downtown Mall, the typically busy theater sat empty this summer as a season usually rife with new releases saw few and far between.
However, according to Cameron Polson, manager of the Violet Crown, the theater plans to reopen later this month, albeit with a twist: Instead of offering individual tickets to new-release films, the Violet Crown will allow people to rent out individual theaters and hold private screenings.
Many of the details are still being worked out, Polson said, such as price and the films available to screen, but he said the hope is that these screenings will allow people to come back to the movies and feel safe.
“We’ve done a lot of work in the past seven to eight months to improve the theater; we’ve installed ionizers in the air conditioning systems, started electrostatic cleaning, repainted and installed new carpet tiles,” Polson said. “These are the kind of improvements and refurbishments that can be hard to do when you’re open 365 days a year.”
Though much is uncertain in the movie theater industry’s future, Polson said he is hopeful that these safety measures and private screenings will help breathe life into the industry.
Polson said that after months of furloughs, the Violet Crown was forced to lay off 21 employees, leaving him as the sole operator of the theater. However, he said he is hopeful that once things pick back up again, the theater will be able to rehire staff.
Though details are yet to be finalized, Polson said he anticipates the Violet Crown will offer a range of prices for theater rentals, with morning and matinee rentals falling on the cheaper end. Patrons will be able to choose from a slate of newer releases and classics, which Polson said they’re referring to as “jukebox cinema.”
Masks and other mandated safety precautions will be followed, Polson said, and no theater will be allowed to exceed more than 50% capacity.
“In some ways, we’re really set up for this, with the smaller theaters on the first floor and the large rooms upstairs,” he said. “We’re trying to make this as smooth a process as possible.”
Elsewhere in Charlottesville, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema has been open again for about a month. The small chain theater and the Regal at Stonefield reopened Aug. 20 upon the release of “Tenet” and “The New Mutants.”
The Alamo Drafthouse also has started offering private screenings, according to Scott Flanagan, who oversees the location at the 5th St. Station shopping center in Albemarle County, along with two others in the state.
For $150, customers can rent a theater and invite either a group of up to 10 or a group of up to 30, Flanagan said. Just like a typical screening, attendees will need to purchase their own tickets.
Available movies include a swath of family-friendly pictures, such as “Gremlins” and “Shrek,” as well as some cult favorites like “The Thing” and “They Live.”
According to Flanagan, 46 screenings were booked across the three Virginia locations in the first five days and he expects the number to grow as word of mouth spreads.
Various safety precautions have been taken, he said, including electrostatic cleaning between screenings, health screenings for employees and communication with the local health departments.
“It’s different for sure, but if we didn’t think it was a good environment for our people, then we wouldn’t be open,” Flanagan said. “The option to rent a theater is a big deal and something that wouldn’t have been there a year ago.”
Alamo Drafthouse is no stranger to specialty cinema, Flanagan said, having long been in the practice of screening older films — such as the 1980s classic “Footloose” — to sold-out crowds. However, with Hollywood releases getting pushed delayed or drawing smaller crowds, Flanagan said Alamo is leaning into specialty screenings especially hard.
As studios continue to release major films via their streaming service, Flanagan said theater owners are certainly concerned, but he feels like there will always be a place for the movie theater experience.