Isolated images: COVID-19 and its impact on the film industry

Sam Landstra- Staff Writer

Photo Credit: Sam Landstra

On most days, the Cinema 5 movie theater is not busy. It is not busy today, either. It is unbusy. It is exceptionally unbusy.

In the dog days of a summer defined by COVID-19, the parking lot bares itself to the late afternoon sun. Only a few cars provide it shade. One of them belongs to Josiah Culpepper.

Culpepper, a junior digital media major at Dordt, is an hour into his closing shift at the theater. He sits behind a glass shield at the ticket booth, waiting for a job to do. Apart from distant chatter from the nearby Pizza Ranch, it is quiet. He reads a book to pass the time. 

A pair of moviegoers break the monotony. They are here to see Tenet, the new Christopher Nolan movie released just yesterday. Culpepper asks them a series of questions about potential COVID-19 exposure. A laminated sign taped to the glass advises patrons to take proper social distancing precautions.

After a summer and spring where movie theaters shuttered their doors, filmmakers ground projects to a halt, and studios pushed new releases months into the future, the film industry appeared to falter.

AMC Entertainment, the largest theater chain in the nation, lost $561.2 million in their second quarter alone, according to Variety. Other theaters already flirting with bankruptcy shut down completely. They didn’t have a happy ending.

For many, Tenet acted as a lifeline to the industry. The the blockbuster film did little to keep it afloat, grossing $6.7 million at the US box office according to IndieWire. 

While it ranks the most popular movie at Cinema 5, Tenet has failed to revive the regular crowds. Around a half dozen people wander their way in for the set of 6:00 shows tonight instead of the typical sixty or so from previous summers, a ninety percent decrease. 

“We’re not a crazy busy theater in the first place.” Culpepper said. “Some nights I won’t even have to drop off money because we didn’t make any.”

When Cinema 5 shut down operations during the height of the pandemic in the spring, they kept up a revenue stream by selling concessions at the door. A customer could call ahead and place an order for popcorn, a soft pretzel, or even a candy bar at discounted prices. 

“With movie theaters, we only get a fraction of the ticket price. So, for us it worked really well.” Culpepper said. “The community was very supportive.”

Come Memorial Day weekend, theaters across Iowa received the OK from Governor Kim Reynolds to reopen their doors, so long as they keep proper health protocols.

“I definitely thought we were all going to get corona within the first couple of weeks.” Culpepper said. 

Each day, Culpepper checked the temperatures, masks, and recent travel history of his coworkers before they began their shift together. Any time a moviegoer entered a theater, an employee would mark their seat on a chart. In between showtimes, they wiped the theaters down with disinfectant. On the part of the customer, masks and social distancing were encouraged, as well as paying with card. Some met these changes with passive aggression.

“A lot of people around here [believe] the virus is a hoax.” Culpepper said. “I felt like I had to defend what was going on and the procedures we were taking.” 

Photo Credit: Josiah Culpepper

While the health and safety precautions kept the theater open for the entirety of the summer without a positive COVID-19 case, it struggled to draw people in. Without new releases, a collection of classic movies at cheaper prices rotated in and out instead. 

“I had probably seen it a million times or I didn’t want to spend the money on it.” Professor Josh Matthews said.

Matthews runs a popular film review channel on YouTube. COVID-19 relegated his bi-weekly trips to Cinema 5 to a screening room in the Ribbens Academic Complex. He didn’t step in a theater all summer. It was Tenet that brought him back, with his pencil and notebook in hand.

“Those movies are made for the big screen.” Matthews said. “I realized I hadn’t done that for six to eight montvhs.”

With films like Mulan migrating from a theatrical to a streaming release, and recent streaming exclusives such as Da Five Bloods and Palm Springs, Matthews believes the casual moviegoer may have trouble getting back into the habit of attending the theater. 

“I don’t think it’s bad… It’s just different.” Matthews said. “I don’t think they will die off though, because I think the social aspect is important.”  

But even as media buzz surrounds the delayed releases of big budget films like No Time to Die and Top Gun: Maverick, amateur filmmakers have had their work complicated by COVID-19 as well. 

Demetrius Rowser, a senior digital media major at Dordt, had to cancel the filming of a short film he wrote during quarantine. He had finalized the cast and crew; all he needed to do was start shooting. The semester that lay before him however, contained too many unknowns.

“It took out a lot of hope for this year.” Rowser said. “I think a lot of my joy was riding in this project.”

Rowser instead plans to establish the Fanatic Filmmaker Club. This will be a place where students from all majors can propose and work on short films for the campus community to watch.

“I’m worried about digital media majors right now.” Rowser said. “I’m hoping people are finding ways, given the current circumstances right now, to put their creativity out there.”

At Cinema 5, Culpepper watches the last moviegoers leave the theater and filter out into the empty mall. He grabs a mop to clean the aisles, his rubber soles sticking to the linoleum with each step. Even the employees have left now; the theater is nearly quiet. The hiss of the projectors makes the only noise. Culpepper shuts them off.

“It’s not the most eventful.” Culpepper said. “The days were slow, but we had fun.”

It is midnight. He exits the building and locks the doors behind him. His car sits alone in the parking lot. The movies play on.

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