Buttery flavored popcorn smells were missing. Oversized fountain drinks and boxes of candied treats were gone. Even the sometimes displeasing sounds of sticky floors were missed. The feeling of sitting beside a person on a date, next to loud speakers and in front of a gigantic screen had to be paused.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the world went into lockdown, social gathering meccas such as theaters were out of the question. As society ventures back outside, has the fate of the theater-going experience been sealed by new-age streaming services? Or, will the silver screen rise once again?
Sharon Elliott was worried about the theater business she manages. More than that though, she was worried for her family, her employees and their families as well. Her parents, Joe and Betty Edwards, own and run Movies 10 and Fun Barn off U.S. Route 33 south of Nelsonville and fall into the higher risk category for COVID-19.
Movies 10 opened in 1998, debuting “Titanic.” The Fun Barn arcade was added later to enhance the experience. Thousands walk through those halls each year but when the pandemic struck and finances took a hit, Elliott’s thoughts centered on loyal employees like “Don, Rodney, Jason and Steve.”
“We are a family business. I was scared. Not just for the business but for my parents, my kids, grandkids. It was a very stressful time,” Elliott said.
For nearly a year and a half, the theater remained closed. In that time, the family remodeled, added some new games to the arcade, resurfaced and restructured the parking lot, and started work on a new feature: a drive-thru.
“The kitchen in the Fun Barn will go away. We’ll put in a drive-thru and we’ll service from the road,” Elliott said. “Drive-thrus stayed open during the pandemic.”
In Athens County, Movies 10 and Fun Barn reopened to the public on July 1. Athena Cinema reopened July 16 and Athena Grand has been open since summer 2020. On Oct. 1, Athena Cinema started requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test to enter.
July saw the releases of “Black Widow,” “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” “The Boss Baby: Family Business,” “The Forever Purge,” and “Jungle Cruise.” “Black Widow” grossed more than $165 million and showed in nearly 4,300 theaters. “F9: The Fast Saga” released at the end of June and grossed more than $173 million through July.
Unsurprisingly, revenues from theaters changed dramatically through the pandemic. According to Comscore data, box office dollars in 2019 came in at more than $5.6 billion. In 2020, those numbers plummeted to $1.8 billion. Through the end of June this year, box office totals came in at just over $1 billion. From 2019 through midway of 2021, global box office revenue fell by 81.3 percent.
Stalwart streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video had already established a foothold in consumer viewing prior to the pandemic. Since then, services like Disney+, Paramount+, Peacock, HBO Max, Apple TV and YouTube TV either emerged or saw boons in their viewership as consumers were forced indoors.
Students at Tri-County Career Center and High School, which serves eight school districts in Athens, Hocking and Perry counties, weighed in on their viewing preferences.
Chloe Phillips, a junior from Federal Hocking studying Nursing Technology, used to visit theaters often but now rarely attends. Her classmate, Aby Osborn, concurred.
Brayden Brown, a junior from Trimble studying sports medicine, said he goes to the movies just as often now as before.
Dalton Inman, a junior studying HVAC/Plumbing, favors streaming services. Remy Lafferty, of Athens, and Haylie Hawkins, of Miller, are streamers as well.
In March, the Motion Picture Association reported streaming services passed one billion subscribers in 2020. According to Newsweek, as of May, Netflix had more than 207 million subscribers and Amazon Prime Video had more than 200 million to lead the way for the streaming services.
“There’s some powerful people out there that own theaters and movie rights that have been fighting streaming,” Elliott said. “Streaming and theaters, we’re colliding right now.”
“I have mixed emotions. We have the schedule for the first part of November but everything after that has question marks. So, I’m a little concerned that streaming is going to take over,” she added.
Elliott pointed out that Movies 10 and Fun Barn offers tickets to its shows for $4, adding that a streaming service could run exponentially higher to view the same movie. She also highlighted the movie-going experience, saying, “I’ve watched movies in my own home and I’ve watched them in theaters. I really like the theater experience better.”
Theaters across the world reopened with new policies to help combat the spread of COVID-19. While the City of Athens has a mask restriction for public spaces, the county does not. Elliott said Movies 10 and Fun Ban doesn’t require a mask but said many people choose to wear them.
“We feel like it’s a personal choice. I’ve been scolded down for that on both sides of the coin,” she said. “In business or in life, you can’t please everybody, so you have to try to do what you feel is best for most.”
The return to theaters, at least locally, has been a welcome one. Elliott said longtime loyal customers and new customers alike are still making their way back after reopening and express their happiness to do so.
Those movie-goers are welcomed back by the smell of popcorn in the air. They carry their oversized drinks and treats back to their seats, sit next to a friend or loved one and settle in for the experience they came for. Streaming is here to stay but the world may just be big enough for the big screen to be big once again.
The 360 is the production arm of Tri-County Career Center and High School’s Sports Journalism and New Media program. This article is a joint production of the program’s student journalists.