COVID-19 pandemic alters the Utah film industry

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See also: BYU filmmakers adapt to COVID-19 challenges

The Broadway Theater, located in Salt Lake City, has temporarily closed due to COVID-19. (Mickey Randle)

The movie theater has been an American cultural staple almost as long as moving pictures have existed. Yet, the death of the institution is entirely possible and may happen sooner rather than later.

The idea that the film industry is constantly in a state of flux is not a new one. One study even asserts that the cyclical nature of the business is simply the way it works. This claim is based on the fact that theaters have been competing with new technology since the introduction of the television set in the 1950s.

Movie theaters have, of course, responded with innovations like luxury seating and IMAX. Film studios have also done their part to keep people going to the movies by producing franchise content like Star Wars and Marvel. The fanbases for these types of films often prefer to watch the content in a community-based setting.

The streaming era further complicated things for movie theaters. A 2017 study reported that 58% of Americans subscribed to at least one streaming service. Among young people, the number was even higher. 

The COVID-19 pandemic delivered what may end up being the biggest hit to theater commerce and the film industry in general. At the beginning of the outbreak, the production of many films was halted. 

Reportedly, 93% percent of movie theaters saw their revenue decline by 75% when compared with last year’s earnings. AMC Theaters, a nationwide chain, was forced to consider bankruptcy. The company’s stock has plummeted 56% as of October 2020.

Movie theaters employ about 150,000 people a year. If the decline continues, over two-thirds of those people could lose their jobs. Utah theaters and film-centered businesses are no exception as a result of the pandemic. However, most have been able to adapt.

An audio timeline of theater actions to stay viable during COVID-19. (Mickey Randle)

Movie theaters

Larry H. Miller Megaplex theaters are almost exclusively located in Utah. Several of their theaters were closed per government restrictions in March. According to their website, all theaters have been open since August. 

Jeff Whipple, the VP of marketing at Megaplex, said their theaters continue to be successful, but not without structural changes. All employees underwent specific training, and masks are required inside of theaters.

Each theater also implements a social distancing policy. After patrons buy their tickets, a computer blocks off a number of seats surrounding them. Whipple said film studios have also assisted Megaplex by making a selection of older films available to be screened.

According to Whipple, the most successful initiatives have been curbside delivery of movie concessions and private movie screenings. This allowed customers to rent out a theater exclusively for their household. 

Whipple said that the business has been impacted by COVID-19, but the company has “taken extraordinary steps” to ensure that jobs were affected as little as possible. 

The Salt Lake Film Society owns and operates two theaters, The Broadway and The Tower, in the Salt Lake area. These theaters feature independent and documentary films. Amy Beth Aste is the theatrical director of both theaters.

Aste said the CEO of the company took the pandemic very seriously from the beginning, taking extra cleaning precautions, and eventually shutting down both locations.

Starting in March, the company gathered revenue with online screenings. This allowed viewers to purchase tickets for one time access to various films at home. They also announced a number of drive-in screenings, which ran through October. 

Aste said the Salt Lake Film Society was forced to lay off all part-time employees in June. Eleven full-time employees remain and the business remains afloat due to ticket sales from online screenings and donations from community members.

Film-based institutions

Not all entertainment companies are subject to the same fate. Gavin Bohne runs a company called Big Cheese Entertainment which provides outdoor movie screenings. Bohne said his business saw a 40% uptick in sales for the year.

According to Bohne, this success was due to an FM transmitter, which he purchased at the beginning of the pandemic. This allowed Big Cheese to hold drive-in screenings. Bohne said he was lucky to have gotten hold of the transmitter, as they are currently hard to find because of the high demand.

Big Cheese implemented approved sanitation procedures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for employees and required customers to sign risk acknowledgment forms. 

“We’ve only got eight years under our belt. We are still kind of in growing stages, and any activities where we are reaching out and getting into the community only helps us grow. This year, I think, has got us into more backyards and more community events, so I think we will see continued growth from this,” Bohne said. 

Like Big Cheese Entertainment, the Utah Film Center found success through making changes. The organization is a non-profit located in Salt Lake City that provides cinematic education and screenings to the community. Patrick Hubley, the director of the Utah Film Center, said his team was keeping an eye on the virus since it appeared in the news.

(Mickey Randle)

As things grew worse in the United States and in Utah, they canceled events and made adjustments. Hubley said they were in the middle of the Tumbleweeds Film Festival when they heard the news. The festival was not able to finish its second week.

“We basically had to rethink and reinvent the way we offer our programming because our events were mostly in-person opportunities. We had very little programming that was being offered online at the time so, we really had to pivot and think about how we can continue to provide meaningful access to our community,” Hubley said. 

The Utah Film Center began to offer online classes in early April and was also able to put on drive-in screenings. Hubley noted that these were difficult to organize but ultimately received positive responses from patrons.

Hubley said that, in some ways, the Film Center has benefitted from moving online. Online programming has, according to Hubley, become more accessible to those who live in places other than Salt Lake County.

“Overall, I would say that we’ve been pretty successful,” Hubley said. “Our audience and supporters and funders are all pleased and appreciative of the efforts that we’re making to continue operating and offering our programming.” 

According to Hubley, the future of the film industry is evolving because of COVID-19, and that it is impossible to predict the future of the Utah Film Center. Still, Hubley said he is taking the moment to evaluate and improve. 

Film production

Film production in Utah has similarly been forced to adapt as a result of the virus. At BYU, students work on short films as part of capstone projects. These productions normally involve upwards of 50 students.

James May, a senior majoring in media arts, had to implement several abnormal policies while directing his film. May said the film department at BYU has released guidelines that helped him feel safe and faculty advisors were conscious about following the rules.

May held all of his production meetings on Zoom. He said while he did miss the in-person interaction, it did help him eliminate some unnecessary meeting times. When the crew was required to meet in person, they utilized a student trained as a health and safety officer. This person would take temperatures and make sure social distancing procedures were followed.

Also unusual for a film set, May said different departments involved with production would set up separately. This meant that the camera department would enter the room, set up, and then leave to make room for the art department. 

According to May, this did slow down production. However, May believes that the quality of his film did not suffer as a result of taking these precautions. May hopes to premiere his 15-minute film entitled Maggie on Stratford Avenue in September of 2021. 

Film enthusiasts, creators, and distributors in Utah have demonstrated resilience and ingenuity despite circumstances that are unkind to their industry. Time, however, will be the ultimate decider in terms of jobs, entertainment, and the cultivation of art. 

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