The movie theater industry has faced one of the most intense setbacks amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and Athens theaters have been getting creative to stay afloat.
As COVID-19 continues to ravage businesses, movie theaters all across the country are doing what they can to stay secure to avoid the possibility of business failure. Many businesses around the world have been forced out of their leases because they are unable to make enough funds to afford their buildings. Athens movie theaters have been staying strong and continuing business in the safest ways possible.
The Athena Cinema, 20 S. Court St., currently does not have a reopening date set, but it is working with Ohio University, the Athens City-County Health Department and Gov. Mike DeWine’s guidelines. Alexandra Kamody, director of Athena Cinema, said Ohio has allowed movie theaters to open with 15% capacity, but the Athena is holding off.
“We have planned scenarios when we would do limited reopening,” Kamody said. “For example, we have thought of opening the theater on a reservation-basis only to keep capacity low and keep the safest possible environment at the theater.”
During the Athena Cinema’s closure due to the pandemic, a restoration was installed on the marquee. The donors of the restoration made it happen as a gift for their son, who passed away years ago, after wanting to do something in his honor. Tyler Weymouth was a projectionist at the Athena while he was an OU student.
“After Tyler had passed, his parents and us were thinking of ways to honor him and his time at the Athena,” Kamody said. “The marquee had fallen into disrepair, so we decided restoring it would be a nice tribute to him. We at the Athena are thankful for their donation, and we are looking forward to having them here and having an event with them.”
The Athena Cinema has held its Sustainability Series for eight years every Fall and Spring Semester. It is a beloved event where people come together at the theater to watch environment-themed documentaries and hold discussions after each film. Due to safety regulations, the Athena Cinema had to think of a way to make the event virtual.
Kamody said the first online series had a great turnout. About 200 people signed up and close to 100 people showed up in the Zoom conference. She said people felt comfortable writing their thoughts in the chatbox on Zoom, so in the years ahead, the Athena may offer a chat feature in person for those who prefer typing over speaking out loud.
“Our main goal has just been to stay connected with the community and our people,” Kamody said. “We are learning and evolving during this.”
On the other side of town, the Athena Grand, 1008 E. State St., has been trying its best to maintain business during the pandemic. The theater has reopened and closed twice during the pandemic but is now open with 10% capacity. However, with the lack of movies being released, not many people are going to the theater.
“If you’re a movie-goer, you know we’re open,” Rick Frame, owner of Athena Grand, said. “Now that blockbusters aren’t coming out, we’re getting true movie people who don’t just go to the blockbuster releases. What we’re getting are the very die-hard customers. Some of them come every day.”
Some of those customers are Athens residents, and others are OU students.
“Movie theaters opening back up is really important for the box office and actors,” Jacob Clift, a junior studying chemical engineering, said. “The pandemic prevents movie studios from creating more high-quality movies. Going to movie theaters is a good way to get out and watch your favorite actors.”
When customers enter each cinema, workers and signs clearly explain that they must sit with two seats between, or one row between, other parties. Athena Grand employees spray sterilizer and disinfectant through the whole theater between viewings. Upon entering work, employees’ temperatures are taken, and they are asked the standard questions surrounding COVID-19 exposure and symptoms.
Frame said that, similar to restaurant guidelines, customers at Athena Grand must wear masks when they enter and leave, and masks should only be taken off when seated in the cinema with concession food. He said there have been no issues with people following mask guidelines.
During the unprecedented setbacks of the pandemic, theaters are not sure how long they will stay open before they are required to close again. Frame said Athena Grand’s plan is to see what happens when students return to Athens at the end of September because they will increase potential customers by 50%. Guidelines will continue to be strictly enforced once the theater gets more business to ensure everyone’s safety from the virus.
“We know each time we close, it is more difficult to reopen,” Frame said. “There is a cost of closing, and it is difficult on our business to continue to do that. The Athens County Health Department has been helpful in giving instructions, and the community has been very supportive. People are buying gift cards even though they know we may not stay open.”