Even as most local businesses have reopened after being shuttered for nearly three months, some movie theaters have not.
But once Gov. Mike DeWine gave the green light for movie theaters to reopen across Ohio, several smaller independent movie houses did just that, and began to welcome back guests with new health-related guidelines in place.
Emily von Stuckrad-Smolinski of Centerville, executive director of the Plaza Theatre in Miamisburg for the past four years, said nothing could have prepared her for what she experienced running a small theater during a global pandemic. But along with her board, she decided to open the theater doors again during the second week of June.
“We are so small that it was a bit easier for us to adapt to all the new rules,” Stuckrad-Smolinski said. “We have been running at one-third capacity and one show a day. People in general aren’t ready to come back to movie theaters, so it’s slow.”
Unlike its other larger movie theater counterparts, the Plaza Theatre has a history of showing both older and newer movies, which Stuckrad-Smolinksi said has always been “a comfortable place for us.” And with most new releases now pushed to late August or September, release dates, older, classic movies are what is available to show now.
“CDC guidelines for theaters are pretty loose,” Stuckrad-Smolinski said. “You do have to maintain a six-foot distance from others not in your household, but we are fortunate to have 292 seats and larger aisles so we can easily enforce this. People don’t want to sit too close to one another anyway.”
Like many businesses, the Plaza is struggling with lower income now that it has reopened. Many people are still nervous about returning to pre-pandemic activities. Ironically the theater was on pace to have its best year ever since its opening when the pandemic hit.
“We are able to sell concessions and our patrons are adapting,” Stuckrad-Smolinski said. “People are coming in earlier and maintaining distance to get their concessions and to sit down and they are wearing masks. Everyone has been great so far.”
Like so many things, going to the movies is something most Americans took for granted until they couldn’t do it. Now many theaters fear that people will be too afraid to return once all are open and showing new release movies once again.
“I think it’s going to be rough for a while,” Stuckrad-Smolinski said. “It’s nice that we are among a community of little theaters like The Neon (Movies) and the Little Art. We aren’t competitors since we are far away from one another so we all support each other.”
The Plaza Theatre, which dates back to 1919, is desperately in need of a new air conditioning and heating system and other refurbishments. And the loss of ticket and concession revenue has made it harder to justify buying a new system or doing any updates.
“I was able to do things as the executive director during the shutdown that I never thought I would have time to do,” Stuckrad-Smolinksi said. “I’ve written some grants and started a fundraising campaign.”
As a nonprofit, the Plaza has always relied on the community for support, but never before has this support been so vital, especially with new movie releases delayed.
“Going forward, I think the new movie releases will be our next big revenue boom,” Stuckrad-Smolinksi said. “We were doing very well with them before and we’ve done polls and new movies are what people want to see.”
All in all, Stuckrad-Smolinski said that people are still going to movies for the experience – something special they can do with family and friends when they choose to leave home.
“I think to some extent the streaming services have affected our business,” Stuckrad-Smolinski said. “But if you talk to people in the lobby, they have gone shopping or out to eat and we end up being part of that experience that day. It’s all part of being in the community and streaming services can’t offer that.”
In addition to taking donations to help Miamisburg’s local theater, Stuckrad-Smolinksi said a fundraiser is being planned for October.
“There are many ways people can help the Plaza,” Stuckrad-Smolinski said. “We know people appreciate and support us and we look forward to being able to offer some great new release movies again very soon.”
For more information or to donate, visit myplazatheater.com.