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June 05th, 2020

eric welch movie pictureMovie patrons wait in line for tickets to the premiere of Liberal native Eric Welch’s film “Beautifully Broken” in 2018 at the Southgate 6 Theater. Mitchell Theaters Owner Brian Mitchell said theaters in his chain are slowly beginning to open up following the COVID-19 pandemic. L&T file photo/Robert PierceELLY GRIMM • Leader & Times


The U.S. is slowly starting to reopen after the COVID-19 pandemic situation, and one of the industries that has been hit particularly hard due to the pandemic is the movie industry. 

“The immense and lucrative Chinese film industry was hit almost immediately as movie theaters across the country were closed and major releases were delayed. Hollywood soon began to feel the effects, too, and as time passes, the impact of the coronavirus on the global film and entertainment industries will certainly grow,” an April article from noted. “Consequences of the pandemic on these industries could range from lowered attendance at film festivals and disruptions in film distribution to delayed or canceled movie releases and concert dates to curtailed on-location film shoots. Financial ramifications will likely be felt by studios, filmmakers, theater owners, and more for months or even years. April 3, Disney made huge changes to its release calendar, setting dates for movies it had previously pulled without a date and moving others.”

Those effects were keenly felt at Southgate Cinema 6, but Mitchell Theaters Owner Brian Mitchell said things are starting to look up. 

“So far, we've been slowly opening up our theaters in Oklahoma and Texas, and we're going to be slowly opening up the theaters in Missouri and Arizona very soon. To be honest, Gov. Kelly completely caught us off guard here this week because when she'd announced Phase 1.5, the movie theaters were still on the list of places that wouldn't be allowed to open, so we figured it would be another two weeks before we'd be able to make any move toward opening,” Mitchell said. “Then when she announced Phase 2 would be moving forward earlier than planned and would allow theaters to open, the only Kansas theater we were really able to make a move on as far as opening was our theater in Newton, and that opened Friday. With Liberal and Garden City, the thing we're concerned about is the number of COVID-19 cases still being counted. With our theaters around the Wichita area, those aren't really hot spots anymore, so we're going to go ahead and start opening those, but we will hold off a little bit with our Garden City and Liberal theaters. We're monitoring the numbers there and a thought we're having is we'd like to do something like curbside popcorn sales like the weekend of May 29 to get staff back into the swing of things, but we knew there was no way we'd be able to comfortably open May 22, so we're thinking of doing the curbside popcorn thing to gauge how comfortable customers would be, and we're thinking we'll start slowly opening the theaters in Liberal and Garden City starting June 5.”

Upon hearing of the change in plan to move forward with Phase 2 of Gov. Laura Kelly’s plan to reopen the state, Mitchell said he and staff immediately went to work. 

“The first thing I thought of was 'Okay, we can open, but what's the occupancy limit?' So we got those numbers and got more clarification on some things and then we started thinking about how we could help people adhere to the social distancing guidelines, and we were definitely very excited we could start opening stuff again,” Mitchell said. “We were disappointed with the Phase 1.5 announcement last week because we're chomping to reopen, but I was very happy to hear about the other businesses that would be able to open because I know there's been a lot of frustration from those people, so I'm happy they're able to get back to work themselves.”

During the time of being shut down, Mitchell said a lot of work has been done to ensure customers safety at the theaters. 

“What's nice is we've been able to open a few theaters already, so we're putting together procedures and protocols. With the social distancing, what we've done is staggered our showtimes and we're going to be open only weekends to start off with a limited number of showtimes,” Mitchell said. “We're also limiting the occupancy in the auditoriums and taking a few other measures to allow people to adhere to the social distancing guidelines, and there's extra cleaning being done so everything's hygienic. All of our staff will also be wearing masks and gloves, and every surface is getting extra cleaned and disinfected and all of that. In Liberal, we'll keep the arcade and party room closed for a while in order to decrease the number of surfaces people touch, and we'll be keeping everything clean and all of that. We're learning something new every day and making minor updates to our protocols in order to make sure everyone's safe. And we totally understand people might be a little nervous about going out to the movies already in the theater, and if you are nervous about it, we do recommend going ahead and staying home until you're comfortable, we understand some people just aren't quite ready yet to be in a mass crowd and we want people to be comfortable in our theaters. We'll also be taking our employees' temperatures every day and making sure all of our staff is healthy.”

With movie release schedules still up in the air, Mitchell added theaters will be going slightly old school for the next several weeks. 

“Because Hollywood rearranged their schedule so much, there's no new major blockbusters scheduled to be released until July. However, there are smaller movies we're opening in our theaters and a lot of our lineup for the next several weeks will be more retro movies that people can watch for discounted admission,” Mitchell said. “There's one theater where we're showing the 'Harry Potter' movies and at our other theaters we've been showing movies like 'Smokey and the Bandit' and comedies and other feel-good movies like that, and it's great seeing parents bringing their children with them and sharing movies that were on the big screen when they were young. We hope to do something where we pick a decade and show movies from that time, we're playing around with things like that, and we'll also bring back a handful of movies that were playing right before everything shut down.”

Mitchell added the reopening of Mitchell Theaters facilities in the other states has been going well so far. 

“I've been on about three or four Zoom calls every week with other theater owners and people with the National Association of Theater Owners, and we're all sharing what's been going on and the bottom line is, we have to start slow, and understandably so,” Mitchell said. “But what we're finding is there are die-hard movie fans who want to get out of the house for a couple hours, and business has actually been picking up every week, and the word of mouth is spreading about our cleaning protocols and social distancing, so that's encouraging, and we anticipate things will pick up even more in the coming weeks. It's still a gut-punch though since we're all used to seeing such big numbers and then basically overnight those numbers drop to zero. But what we're seeing at the start of all this is encouraging, and we're excited to have the staff back and have the doors open, even if it's just on the weekends for a little while. We're really laying the groundwork as the smaller theaters, because there's no way the bigger theater chains would be able to experiment with everything like we can right now, there's just too many variables for them. But we're experimenting and learning every day and we hope to see the theater industry come back from such a big challenge like what we're going through right now. We're the guinea pigs, so to speak, and us smaller chains are laying the groundwork for how everything will be when things fully open back up.”

Even with that, however, Mitchell said the reopenings in the other states does not give a full indication of how the reopening would go in the area. 

“The numbers in that area are completely different than in the other areas where we've been able to already open. We've opened in places so far that have only had 25 to 30 cases max, we haven't yet opened in an area with the numbers that are being seen in that area,” Mitchell said. “It does help us as far as what protocols to take with cleaning and social distancing and that sort of thing, but as far as what to expect with numbers, we'll be flying a little blind in that area. We're also taking a look at the businesses in that area and seeing what kinds of numbers they're seeing, which gives us an idea of how comfortable people are about stuff reopening. What shocked me is in Arizona has decided to open up a lot of things already, and that's almost right next to California, which has been a lot more restrictive about opening stuff up.”

And while things will be taken slowly, Mitchell said he is excited for the reopening of the theaters in the area at the beginning of June. 

“We're ready to again share with people the magic of movies. People are tired of being stuck at home and they probably feel like they've watched everything there is to watch on Netflix or whatever streaming platform they happen to use, and they just want to go out with either other family or friends and escape the madness for a couple hours,” Mitchell said with a chuckle. “And the movies we're bringing in are comedies and more of the easy, feel-good movies people need to see right now in the midst of all the chaos. We don't know when things will be 'normal' again, but this is one step closer to that level than we were several weeks ago. We're looking forward to opening again soon and while we're taking every precaution we can to make sure our customers are safe, we totally understand if there are people who aren't quite yet comfortable being in a mass crowd again, and that's okay, because we want you to be fully comfortable when you're in one of our theaters. We look forward to seeing everyone at the movies again and we'll also be posting updates on our social media to let people know what's going on, so stay tuned for all of that as well.”

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