BALTIMORE — Most people who saw the movies nominated for an Academy Award in 2021, did not see them at a movie theater.
The pandemic shut down theaters all over the country more than a year ago, and they have just started to make a comeback.
In Baltimore, the Charles Theater had a soft opening on Thursday, April 15, and it is open again this weekend. At this point, the capacity limit on movie theaters in Baltimore City is 50 percent for each individual auditorium - or a total of 100 people, whichever is fewer. And customers have to wear a mask unless they're eating.
Cindy Hall had a friend visiting from out of town, so they decided to take in a movie, in person. They say they’re comfortable with what’s been done at The Charles:
“Social distancing, keeping people apart, put all systems in place, It’s working,” Hall said. “I think we can feel safe coming back out. People need to get out.”
For the owner of the Charles Theater, Kathleen Lyon, the sight of actual paying customers is a reason to celebrate.
“The excitement and the lines and the smell of the popcorn popping the jazz playing in the lobby and everyone's excited,” she said.
That excitement ended in March of last year, when the pandemic hit the movie industry like a shot from the Death Star. All theaters were forced to shut down.
“It's really surreal thinking back on that time,” Lyon said.
That included the Charles and the Senator in North Baltimore, both of which are owned by Lyon and her father.
“Our heads were spinning,” she said. “There's nothing you could do to prepare for that. It's not like any kind of business decision you could make or not make."
It's been no better for the big the national chains. Nationwide, movie ticket sales dropped 80 percent from 2019 to 2020. And the competition from streaming services got even stronger. For the first time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences allowed movies released directly to streaming platforms to qualify for the 2021 Oscars, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kathleen Lyon said her theaters had actually been doing well against the Netflixes and Hulus of the world. It was like a sequel to their competition with the VCR and movie rental chains decades ago.
“You can watch stuff at home - you always have been able to - or you can leave your house and you can be with other people and you can have a social experience and you can see something on a big screen and you can get out of your pajamas,” Lyon said.
But then the pandemic hit - and stretched through the Summer, the Fall, the Winter, and now another Spring. The bills kept coming in, the customers could not.
“You sort of look at your bank account as it dwindles away,” Lyon said. “And decide what bills can you pay, what do you need to defer what can be covered what can't be covered.”
They did get help from federal assistance programs. And they've spent the down-time adding plexiglass to busy areas, moving to paperless ticketing, and upgrading the ventilation systems at both theaters. The Senator Theatre is expected to reopen in May; it is undergoing more extensive renovations.
But if a comeback story is going to happen, it will have a lot to do with a concept expressed in another movie – the faith that “people will come.” And that has been the case now, for two straight weekends at The Charles Theater.
“They were happy and they were comfortable and they felt safe and they enjoyed the movie,” Lyon said. “And I think it's going to be a gradual process for us but I do think it's one we will recover from."