Sarah Lehr doesn’t know when things will get back to normal, but she knows it’s time to get back to business.
The general manager at Wildwood Theatres announced Tuesday that the Janesville movie house is planning a “soft opening” Friday, April 23, and a grand opening event Friday, May 7.
“It’s good news,” Lehr said. “(Marvel Studios) will be releasing ‘Black Widow,’ so we’re coinciding the grand opening with that.”
Apart from a two-week span in mid-July, this marks the first time the shuttered building has seen activity since the pandemic took hold last March.
The announcement is certainly welcome after what has proved to be a difficult year for theaters. After Wildwood closed due to COVID-19, Lehr was forced to lay off her entire staff in an effort to cut costs. While she couldn’t completely halt the facility’s utility usage, she drew it back dramatically.
“Payroll is a huge expense, and people would be surprised at the billing we still get for electric. It’s substantial,” she said. “But we need to keep the air moving so the dust stays off the projection machines, and a lot of things can go wrong if you turn the heat off in winter. Plus, there are a lot of physical things that can be affected such as our new leather seats, which could crack if moisture builds.”
Despite the closure, Lehr has been busy. When she wasn’t handling standard theater business or bartering with distributors to unload Wildwood’s concession reserves, she was helping clean and update the building.
“About the only positive thing is I’ve had more time to do updates and improvements,” she said. “For the (first) four months we were closed, we repainted the floors, and I did regrouting around the vending area. We had toilets replaced, did retiling and cleaning, and had the carpets and all surfaces professionally cleaned. All of the seats we didn’t replace were cleaned as well. It was an every single day project.”
While COVID-19 hit everyone hard, it was a gut punch for Wildwood. Already faced with declining revenues caused, in part, by increased streaming options, the theater’s owners still are trying to recoup a large investment for physical upgrades made in 2017.
To further compound problems, most film companies have either pulled back production or delayed release of several anticipated movies. Wildwood’s reliance on replaying older films when it reopened in July wasn’t enough to entice audiences.
“Some movies have been pushed back years,” Lehr said. “(The production companies) want to hold on until they know a crowd will come see them. That has hurt us because, if they would have kept giving us movies, we would have had a chance to gain revenue. Older movies simply don’t have that same draw. We don’t have the films available, and that’s 90 percent of the reason we are not open.”
At one point, Lehr started to wonder whether theaters would reopen at all.
“I was on a conference call through NATO (National Association of Theatre Owners), and there was a point in the conversation where they stressed to all of us that this could possibly be the end of our industry,” she said. “I can’t imagine there might be kids out there who have no idea what it would be like to go to a movie. That would break my heart. That comment was shocking to all of us.”
Lehr said she considered reopening Wildwood to host special events, but the financial numbers just wouldn’t jibe.
“I wanted to start renting it out not just for private showings but also maybe for conferences. I was thinking maybe somebody might even want to have a wedding or something there,” she said. “What it came down to was, in order to accommodate a few individuals, we would have to start up the entire theater again.
“Another thing was our insurance policy,” she said. “We lowered it to structural coverage in order to save money because there was no risk of having people inside.”
That will soon change, and Lehr is preparing for it. In addition to rehiring staff and refilling supplies, she is drawing up service guidelines aimed at protecting patrons.
“We want our customers to feel safe, and we want them to come back,” she said. “In order to do that, protocol will be important. Families can sit together, but there will be chairs between groups. Obviously, there will be a lot of cleaning, and staff will be wearing masks and gloves. Anything to make everyone feel safe.”
Despite being without revenue for nearly a year, Lehr said Wildwood plans to initially reduce ticket prices. By how much, she couldn’t say.
Lehr also said Wildwood is working with the Rock County Public Health Department to determine capacity limits for the six theaters that will reopen. And in an effort to eliminate high traffic and touch points, no decision has been made yet on whether to offer free refills of soda and popcorn.
As other theaters prepare to reopen, at least one in the area hopes to be hitting full stride as spring approaches.
Whitewater Cinemas welcomed customers back in July and has been open six days a week ever since. The theater has weathered the storm mostly by showing older films intermixed with a few new releases.
“When we first reopened, it was pretty slow for a while,” said theater manager Kaitlyn Dorsey. “We had really small crowds and not a lot of movies to show. But we just keep trucking along. Sometimes I don’t know how we are still open, but we’re doing pretty good.”
Innovation has been key. To purge its concessions reserves during the initial three-month shutdown, Whitewater Cinemas started a service to deliver 3-pound bags of popcorn to customers’ homes. When the theater reopened, it opened a makeshift drive-in to cater to its more guarded patrons.
“My boss actually bought a screen and hooked it up to the outside of the building, retrofitting a little trailer with a projector so it would work outside,” Dorsey said. “We were doing really well with that for a while because people just felt more comfortable watching from their cars.”
As was the case at Wildwood, owners at Whitewater Cinemas took advantage of early down time to address the building’s needs. Dorsey said the lobby and bathrooms have been completely remodeled, and everything has been repainted.
To bolster income, the Whitewater theater continues to offer $100 private screenings, and it cut ticket prices to $5 for all showings. Being one of the only local theaters to have stayed open also has made a difference, Dorsey said.
“We’ve have a lot of people drive up from Beloit or even over the border in Illinois,” she said. “Since the Janesville theater didn’t reopen, we get a lot of people from there. Most people in Whitewater don’t even realize we’re open, so our audience is mostly people who are traveling here because they’re just happy to find an open theater.”
If that’s all it takes to please film fans, they’re in for more good news. Like Whitewater Cinemas, Emagine Geneva Lakes in Lake Geneva also is open. And along with Wildwood’s announcement, a post to the Beloit Classic Cinemas Facebook page said it plans to reopen April 15.