Chicago, IL

Can Chicago movie theaters recover from the Covid pandemic?

Jennifer Geer

Hollywood is back to making movies, but can the theater industry make a comeback too?

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It was getting tough for movie theaters even before the pandemic. With streaming options and home theaters, many find it's more convenient and cheaper to stay home to watch a movie.

Rising ticket prices helped theaters to stay profitable, even when the crowds had grown smaller. But then the pandemic hit, and the last place anyone wanted to be was crowded indoors eating popcorn together in an enclosed area.

Not only did movie theaters close across the country, but the movie industry also shut down, and nothing new was made for months. Release dates for blockbuster hits were pushed back, and many new movies were released directly to streaming services.

When theaters began reopening in a limited capacity in Illinois at the beginning of the year, there weren't many new films to show. Most theaters opted to present a mix of classic and recent movies. With limited crowds, it was challenging for the theaters to make a profit on ticket and concession sales.

Many Chicago area theaters did not survive.

AMC Chicago's Navy Pier IMAX (closed)

Theater chain AMC reportedly lost $4.59 billion in 2020 as theaters were closed in most areas due to lockdowns. AMC permanently closed Chicago's 300-seat Navy Pier IMAX theater in March.

Though AMC has experienced losses, they are a large corporation and have deep pockets to withstand the trouble. Currently, AMC theaters around the Chicago area are open for business, though they are following the state's limited capacity Covid restrictions.

But smaller theater chains have not been as fortunate.

ArcLight Cinemas in Chicago and Glenview (closed)

Chicago's ArcLight Cinemas (and the Glenview location) never reopened after closing last March when the pandemic began.

ArcLight Cinemas was known for its slightly inflated ticket prices, no advertisements, and only three trailers per show. And don't forget their caramel popcorn made in-house daily. There is speculation they might reopen with a new owner, but for now, it remains closed.

According to a statement released in Deadline by the owners, "This was not the outcome anyone wanted, but despite a huge effort that exhausted all potential options, the company does not have a viable way forward."

Ogden 6 Theatre in Naperville (closed)

In the suburbs, the Ogden 6 Theatre in Naperville, run by Classic Cinemas, shut its doors permanently after 40 years last summer. The strip mall where the theater was located was being torn down to make way for a Costco.

Classic Cinemas had planned to keep airing movies while looking for a new location, but with the pandemic shutting things down, the theater closed, and there has been no word of reopening in a new location at this time.

Mom and Pop theaters are struggling

Christopher Parrish, professor at DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts told Chicago's WGN9, “I believe the theater chains will bounce back, but a lot of mom and pops have not had the deep pockets that a lot of the major corporations that own theater chains have had in surviving this very long storm."

While restaurants and brick and mortar businesses could reinvent themselves during the pandemic with take-out specials and curbside shopping, movie theaters didn't have such options. Movie lovers quarantining at home simply turned on Netflix or Hulu or any of the other many streaming choices to get their movie fix.

The question remains, will moviegoers begin to feel comfortable heading out to theaters again? And will vaccinations lower the spread of Covid enough so that governments can relax the limited capacity restrictions? It will be hard for movie theaters to make much in profits until they can open beyond 25% or 50% capacity.

Will we ever head back to the movies?

Many people are still hesitant to return to an indoor theater. According to the CDC's latest guidelines, sitting in a movie theater is safe, only if you are vaccinated and wearing a mask. For unvaccinated people, the CDC says indoor movies are one of the least safe activities.

For now, chains around the Chicago area, like AMC and Cinemark are advertising enhanced cleaning methods in their theaters. They're regularly cleaning surfaces, enforcing social distancing, requiring masks, and reducing touchpoints.

But is it enough to lure back moviegoers that can stream the latest hit from the comfort (and safety) of their living room? As someone who loves to sit in a darkened theater munching on buttered popcorn immersing myself in the magic of a movie, I really hope so.

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Jennifer covers lifestyle content and local news for the Chicago area. She holds a master's degree in psychology from the University of Tulsa.

Chicago, IL
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