Mann Theatres CEO Stephen Mann has lived long enough to see all nine movies of the Star Wars franchise and all 23 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“There’s nothing like sitting in a dark auditorium with 200 other people watching a film,” Mann said.
And Mann has been around long enough to see Disney buy both cinematic properties, so he is confident the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter will be popular again with moviegoers when it reopens.
“No. 1, I’ve been in this business 50 years. And I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years, whether it be DVR or satellite or pay-per-view or streaming now or whatever. And theaters have always survived. People want to get out and be entertained,” Mann said, in a telephone interview.
About half the movie screens in the U.S. operate under the umbrella of three national theater chains: AMC Theatres, Regal Cinemas and Cinemark. None plan to reopen before June, according to an NPR report, just like Mann Theatres, but Mann is still betting on the format.
“I always use the comparison that, you know, there’s hundreds of restaurants out there, and everyone goes to restaurants, but they all have kitchens in their home. You know, why are we any different?” Mann asked rhetorically.
Twenty-seven people were put out of work when the cineplex closed in March. Mann Theatres, owners of the Lakes 12 Theatre, has been selling popcorn and other concession items for curbside pickup Saturdays with part of the proceeds benefitting the local COVID-19 response.
“We were hopeful to reopen in the beginning of June, but movie theaters are not part of Phase II of Minnesota’s Stay Safe Plan. When we are permitted to reopen, we are prepared to do so in a way that is safe for employees and customers. .. As soon as we have an opening date, we will share,” Mann stated in a newsletter and on Facebook.
The chain was founded in 1935 and now includes 11 locations with a total of 94 screens. Mann Theatres ran two triplexes in the Brainerd lakes area but closed those theaters when it opened the Baxter theater in 1996, which then had 10 screens. Two more screens were added in 2012.
“A lot of people have invested a fair amount of money in home theaters, but they still want to get out, you know? What is the 17-year-old kid going to do with his date? Say, ‘Let’s go home and sit and watch a movie in my basement with mom and dad there’? No, it doesn’t work that way,” Mann said.
Netflix saw its subscriber base explode as people sheltered in place due to the coronavirus pandemic. The company added 16 million subscribers in the first quarter of 2020, but that does not bother Mann.
“As long as we have a film that interests people and they want to see, I firmly believe that they’ll come out for it,” said Mann, who vowed not to show Universal Pictures releases like AMC Theaters, the largest national chain, if Universal continues to bypass theaters for distribution.
Universal Pictures recently released the “Trolls” sequel via video-on-demand. Universal reported that “Trolls: World Tour” scored the biggest opening day and opening weekend for a digital title, and made almost $100 million in three weeks.
“If you take a film like Wonder Woman that’s coming out, Top Gun, Fast and Furious, those films have a tendency to do a billion dollars worldwide. I don’t care if they stream it all day long. They’ll never ever be able to get those kinds of numbers, so we’re still a very important vehicle for the distributors because we create the kind of revenue that we do,” Mann said.
Mann’s son and partner in the company recently came up with a survey asking the public about how soon would they return to a movie theater to watch a movie, how important various safety precautions were to them and what kinds of films do they want to see once a theater reopens.
“He put that survey out on a Thursday afternoon at 3 o'clock, and by Friday at 5 o'clock, we had 1,012 responses. By Monday morning, we have 1,287 responses,” Mann said. “The purpose of the survey was to find out what our customers really care about.”
The survey asked the respondent, for example, how important was it to them to coordinate exit plans at the end of each movie to ensure social distancing when exiting the theater.
“There were some things that we were quite surprised at as far as the responses are concerned. Safety and security is our No. 1 priority when we do reopen. And the No. 1 concern from our consumers, believe it or not, was hand sanitizer,” Mann said.
Like most theaters, the most popular showtimes for Mann Theatres before the chain temporarily shutdown its theaters were Friday and Saturday nights.
“Well, in the surveys that came back, the most interest that we had, it was weekday matinees and weekend matinees, so that was surprising,” Mann said. “But overwhelmingly 42% said they were willing to come back the day we reopen.”
Two years ago, the Lakes 12 Theatre became the sixth cinema Mann Theatres owned that converted to luxury seating but just the second one outside the metro area; the other Mann Theatre property was in Alexandria.
“Some said they wouldn’t come back until there was a vaccine out on the market. That was a very small percentage, but it was a question that we asked,” Mann said and added the chain had sneeze guards manufactured to be placed at its theaters’ registers for safety reasons.
Shane Martin is the owner and president of Sunset Cinema in Pequot Lakes and even though the cineplex has less than half the movie screens as the Lakes 12 Theatre, he feels the pain.
The five-screen movie complex employed 10 people, according to Martin, and the building opened in 2006 before he came along and purchased the first-run theater in 2008.
“We are open seven days a week 365 days a year. We have matinee and evening shows every day but during the non-summer, non-holiday periods. Our Monday through Thursday schedule is more limited,” Martin said of Sunset Cinema before it temporarily closed in March.
Earlier this month, Martin estimated Sunset Cinema could reopen its doors sometime in late June but acknowledged the circumstances surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to slow the spread of transmission change daily and so could the government’s response to it.
“We will follow the recommended guidelines of the state, industry professionals and other relevant medical professionals as to what exactly that should look like when we are allowed to reopen,” Martin said.
Martin also said that at a minimum social distancing will be in effect in terms of how many people are allowed in an auditorium.
“We will also be looking at how we physically interact with customers, where are the areas of most exposure to the staff and to customers, and how can we reduce risk for everyone while still maintaining a high level of customer service,” Martin said.
According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, there are at least 40,613 movie screens nationwide — and a sure bet is most if not all of them will be eager for something new to show audiences on the big screen.
“So there may be a period for us when we first open again that we’ll have to get creative with what product we will show on screen until the studios are confident that it makes sense to start releasing their blockbusters,” Martin said.
Disney’s “Mulan” and the Warner Bros. sequel “Wonder Woman 1984” based on the popular DC Comics are just some of the expected blockbusters that were supposed to be in theaters soon.
Martin said, “And there is plenty of product coming down the pipeline that we can’t wait to see on the big screen! Not to mention the fact that I am excited about eating some hot, fresh, buttery popcorn again. Trying to replicate it at home just doesn’t measure up.”
Drive-in theaters have seen a resurgence in popularity given the social distancing watching a movie from a vehicle can afford to moviegoers, drive-in theaters such as the Starlite Drive-In in Litchfield, but Mann said safety precaution will be in place at the Lakes 12 when it reopens.
“All of our employees will be required to wear masks and gloves. We will check every employee’s temperature as they come through the front door. If there’s any sign of any kind of elevated temperature, they will be asked to go home,” Mann said.
The chain has also purchased social distancing stickers to be placed on the floor in front of its theaters’ box offices, concession stands and bathrooms to remind people to space themselves apart and it will have hand sanitizer available throughout the theaters, according to Mann.
“We have the ability through our software company that we will go into our software and only sell every other seat. Now the spacing in luxury theaters — and Brainerd is one of them — is 7 feet apart, front to back, so we’ve got that covered. Spacing between seats, if we skip a seat, the spacing is a little over 4-and-a-half feet, so we will only sell every other seat,” Mann said.
Big tent pole movie releases planned just before the pandemic such as the latest James Bond sequel “No Time to Die” or the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe release “Black Widow” were pushed back when it became apparent moviegoers were sheltering in place in a poor economy.
“We’re in an industry that’s unusual from the standpoint that most businesses, when they reopen, you can go into a clothing store and buy a nice T-shirt, but we totally rely on film. Most of the distributors have moved back their films until either fall or some into 2021,” Mann said.
Other survey questions included those asking how important is it to the moviegoer for theater employees to wear masks and gloves; for theater seats and bathroom sinks and stalls to be cordoned off to ensure a 6-foot social distance; or for movies to be first-run new releases.
“Sony Pictures, for example, they took all their film out of 2020 and moved it all into 2021. Well, that doesn't sit well for us because what are we supposed to do until 2021? … Theaters all over the country right now, their plan is to reopen what we call ‘repertory product,’” Mann said.
Mann cited as examples “Dirty Dancing,” the 1987 drama starring Patrick Swayze of “Ghost” and Jennifer Grey, who played Ferris Bueller’s sister in another 1980s classic; and “Grease,” the 1978 pop musical featuring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, a perennial crowd-pleaser.
“The list goes on and on. Thousands of titles that will be available to us. … Now we’ll try to pick the best film that we think are favorites with customers. We’re putting out another survey shortly as to what films would they like to see,” Mann said.
Mann Theatres also plans to change its theatre’s feature times “drastically,” according to Mann, so whereas normally a theater would run five shows a day on any given film the frequency will be cut back to three showings per auditorium to disperse crowds and stagger attendance.
“We want a lot of time in between the shows to go in and sanitize the auditorium. We'll go through and wipe down the seats, cupholders and armrests. .. We’ll post somebody outside of a men’s or ladies’ room, and after people go in and out, we will sanitize that as well,” Mann said.
Mann said the chain is working with a company to produce a trailer that will be shown at the beginning of the movie to stress the importance of social distancing and personal responsibility.
“My feeling is if the business owners don’t govern their business then the government is going to get really involved and close your business down,” Mann said. “We will abide by whatever the rules are. And we’ll probably go overboard as to what is required of us because we want it to be safe for our employees, and we want it to be safe for our customers.”