Movie Theater Chain CEO Discusses Challenges Facing Smaller Theaters, Describes ‘Safe Environment’ For Patrons

Amelie Audrey Tautou bathed in the glow of a movie screen

While we’ve heard a lot about how major theater chains have found their businesses hurt by current events, those sorts of challenges are even greater when presented to smaller theatrical exhibition chains. Everything from fewer locations to a more regional focus in business are elements that make the eventual recovery process for a chain like the Illinois-based Classic Cinemas all the more difficult. But that certainly hasn't stopped their CEO, Chris Johnson, from being cautious and optimistic about the road ahead.

I recently spoke with Mr. Johnson, in light of the news that the National Association of Theatre Owners, better known as NATO, had started a campaign to help push for more government issued funds being granted to theater chains, big and small, that are currently in need. Our conversation dug into why Johnson is so focused on bringing Classic Cinemas back up and running as soon as possible, and part of the reason is definitely an economically driven concern. Johnson laid out the case for why theaters like his are in danger of closing for good, with the following playing field at work. Johnson told us:

We are, 100 percent, the shuttered industry. I still absolutely firmly believe that going out is still a desired activity. Sometimes people comment, ‘Well I’ve got an 85 inch screen.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, well you’ve got a kitchen too, but you still go out.’ The second you decide you’re going to go outside of the house, theaters are an option. But the challenge is getting from March, the shutdown, to the reopen, and to a steady state. That is a real financial challenge. … We’re down basically 100 percent. We are pushing our banks, using up reserves, and asking for help from the government, looking to help save [the industry]. And actually, it was a healthy industry. Yes, there was a player or two that had financial difficulties; but that wasn’t the sign for the entire industry. I certainly had a great year in 2019, and January and February were both up. To date, since March, I’ve lost 1.6 million guests, and that’s tough to overcome, especially being that I’m just a small regional chain.

Chris Johnson knows that even when theaters are open, there’s two major concerns that need to be addressed to get audience back into Classic Cinemas auditoriums, or any movie house for that matter. In fact, they’re the two concerns that we’ve spoken about quite frequently: the availability of fresh content, and the safety measures being taken by movie theatre chains welcoming back the crowds they really want to see.

Johnson was able to see some of the ups and downs of both of those particular subjects, and in the case of fresh content, that seems to be a more important thing to consider than previously thought. With a lot of theaters opening back up with legacy titles like Jurassic Park, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Dark Knight, movie theaters were hoping that bringing the old favorites back will help start the engines up with a boost. But as Johnson saw through Classic Cinemas reopening with that content, the desired effect wasn’t exactly what ended up taking place:

The people who come to your theater are just happy as can be, and they’re complimentary, and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, you guys are doing great.’ Our guests as a whole are very supportive. But at the end of the day, those [retro] titles aren’t going to make up [the difference]. There isn’t going to be an equal attendance that’s gonna come out and see those titles they’ve already seen. I was hoping there’d be a little bit more traction on that, but the reality is that isn’t the case. It doesn’t even matter about price … it seems like there’s a core out there that’s absolutely willing, able, and excited to go to the movies, and then there’s everybody else that’s like ‘Eh, I’m not going to go until there’s a new movie that really gets me excited,' or, ‘At this moment, I’m just not going.’

The tepid response to legacy titles present at Classic Cinemas’ reopening this past June was lackluster enough that their theaters had to close down again. It wasn’t just the current health crisis that forced their doors closed at that time. Rather, the fact that the older titles weren’t making enough money to keep things going contributed to the decision. As Chris Johnson has shown us, it’s not enough to be able to reopen a movie theater with Jurassic Park, as you need to have content like Jurassic World: Dominion, or any other new film closer on the horizon of release, to keep things going at a steady pace.

And then there’s the concern for safety, which according to Johnson is something that audiences have even less to worry about than they are currently. He was confident that Classic Cinemas is positioned to help alleviate the fears of moviegoers who, while missing the theater, might be apprehensive about being in an enclosed space with strangers. Chris Johnson hears those sorts of concerns in feedback from audiences, and he responded to those issues thusly:

We’ve received pretty much nothing but positive feedback [from the patrons]. I think there is a perception that there is going to be people all over each other, kind of thinking back to when they went to the movies to the days of old. That just isn’t the case. I think that we’ve done an excellent job of reopening and spacing and everything. … The idea is, it is a safe environment. We, as an industry, need to work to communicate that better. I will say, in our particular case, there’s some people saying, ‘Well indoor air…,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, hey, we added 50 to 100% more fresh air into the building. We’re using a higher degree of [MERV] filter that eliminates all the particles in the air.’ We really do take this seriously, and it really is a safe environment. And candidly, it really is like the days of old, where once you get into the auditorium, you escape. You just let everything unfold, and I think everybody needs that now. And getting out of the house, let’s face it, I think we’ve spent a little bit too much time in the house. Going out in a safe environment, experiencing new movies and content, is a great option.

If anyone was looking for the solution that’s going to bring everyone from Classic Cinemas to AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas back to the sort of shape they were in before the massive shutdown in March, Chris Johnson knows there are no easy answers. The audience needs to not only feel secure that their movie experience isn’t as harmful as some would think, but there also need to be new titles available to as many locations as possible when the doors are open again.

On the studio end, you can see why companies like Warner Bros are concerned with bringing Tenet to theaters as soon as possible. Which is part of the reason why the rolling debut schedule for Christopher Nolan’s latest film has been implemented. That way, areas that have movie theaters open and operating can get that fresh content on screens and start the monetary engines up again. However, not everyone is going to have that sort of access, both to content or the ability to open movie theaters up again, safely.

This is why it’s so important to NATO to get the #SaveYourCinema campaign in full swing, as the organization is encouraging theater patrons to appeal to elected officials for access to forgivable loans and other funding measures that are seen as important to keeping movie theaters running. But no matter what sort of liquidity is in play, theaters need patrons to come back to the movies; and as Chris Johnson shows below, Classic Cinemas is one of the venues that’s ready and willing to be there for its fans:

We’re just happy to see everybody again and I think that once they try it, they’ll be happy with the experience and tell others. … I think, as an industry, we need to sort of elevate the conversation to [say] ‘Come out and try us, and you’ll see that we’re very serious’ and at the same time, leave the hard work up to us. Bring your mask and social distance, and you’ll be in great shape.

We’ll see how theatrical reopening works out, for nationwide and regional chains alike, as late August/early September looks to be the big target date for the lights to turn back on. But if you’re looking for a way to support your local theaters, and you’re not sure when you’ll be able to go back to a theater near you, be sure to check out the #SaveYourCinema campaign over at NATO’s official website. And if you are so inclined to return to the movies, you can currently look forward to the Russell Crowe starring Unhinged, which is set to open on August 21st, and Tenet, which will roll out in to theaters, starting on September 3rd.

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

Mike Reyes is the Senior Movie Contributor at CinemaBlend, though that title’s more of a guideline really. Passionate about entertainment since grade school, the movies have always held a special place in his life, which explains his current occupation. Mike graduated from Drew University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, but swore off of running for public office a long time ago. Mike's expertise ranges from James Bond to everything Alita, making for a brilliantly eclectic resume. He fights for the user.