Local movie theaters reopening despite dark times

Regional movie theaters like the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter, the Sunset Cinema in Pequot Lakes and the Rialto Theatre in Aitkin were temporarily closed because of the coronavirus pandemic and have struggled during the past year, but they are showing signs of recovery.

The Lakes 12 Theater in Baxter offers first-run new releases with discounted matinee prices, and it shows older movie classics at the lesser cost of $5 for any showing. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

The old show business phrase “the show must go on” was around before the coronavirus pandemic started last year.

But when the number of COVID-19 cases rose nationwide, the virus proved more than a match for movie theaters struggling to remain open as they attempted to keep staff and patrons safe.

“Being shut down for three months (early last year) and then once again in November being shut down for two months and having staff not being able to work — essentially laying them off — that was a hard thing,” Lakes 12 Theatre General Manager Steve Saurer said.

A sign posted at the front entrances of the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter informs the public it is closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Submitted photo / Mindy Peterson-Lee


Minnesota health officials asked theaters twice to shut down to prevent the spread of the virus, so all Mann Theatres locations, including the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter, temporarily closed last March and November, and did not reopen until June and January, respectively.

“Now that we’re open again — we’re open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Tuesdays — we have a small staff covering almost every shift, and we’re hoping to hire some more now because obviously down the road, here, we’ll be open seven days a week,” Saurer said.


National Association of Theatre Owners

The National Association of Theatre Owners applauded last week the passage of the American Rescue Plan by Congress. The plan preserves and expands tax relief programs that give “a much-needed lifeline to movie theater companies of all sizes affected by the pandemic.”

“We extend our gratitude to the program’s champions Sens. Amy Klobuchar and John Cornyn for their tireless efforts on behalf of cinemas,” according to a news release from the association.

The American Rescue Plan would also extend critical unemployment benefits to furloughed movie theater workers once signed into law by President Joe Biden.

The Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter is part of a chain of theaters owned by Mann Theatres, which operates in 11 locations with a combined total of 94 screens. Submitted photo / Mindy Peterson-Lee


Saurer said of the Lakes 12 Theatre staff, “Some of them couldn’t qualify for unemployment because they were dependents, so that extra income that they were earning as a teenager, for instance, they weren’t making anymore.”

The National Association of Theatre Owners is the largest exhibition trade organization in the world, representing more than 35,000 movie screens in all 50 states, and more than 33,000 additional screens in 100 countries worldwide.

“The governor shut us down for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s,” said Stephen Mann, CEO of Mann Theatres, which owns the Baxter cineplex. “But the reopening has been good. ... It started out slow, but every week gets better as the vaccines continue to roll out.”

Stephen Mann is the chief executive officer of Mann Theatres, which owns the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter. Submitted photo / Mann Theatres

Movie theaters in New York City reopened Friday, March 5, at 25% capacity. They had sat vacant in one of the world’s foremost movie capitals for the past year because of the pandemic.

“We think L.A. is about two weeks behind. Now if that happens, a lot of the films that are slated right now like ‘Black Widow’ as well as the spring lineup will stay intact because they depend so much on New York and LA so we’re thankful that New York was allowed to reopen,” Mann said.


Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Raya and the Last Dragon” made its debut simultaneously on Disney+ Premier Access and in theatres on March 5, 2021.

Because of the exorbitant expense involved in making major motion pictures, Hollywood has chosen during the pandemic to delay new releases, such as the latest James Bond sequel “No Time to Die,” until more theaters reopen or switch to releasing the films on streaming services.

“If those two markets continue to get open and increase, I think we’ll be fine,” Mann said in reference to movie theaters in New York City and Los Angeles. “It’s been a year now since the virus hit us in Minnesota, and people have had enough and want to get back to normal living.”

Lakes 12 Theatre

Mann Theatres currently operates movie theaters in Champlin, Grand Rapids, Hibbing, St. Paul and Plymouth in addition to the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter.

“When it was cold or snowy or whatever, you know, people have a tendency to want to get together and come to a movie as a great escape. It was a good place to go,” Mann said.

The Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter is part of the Mann Theatres family-chain of cineplexes. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

About 13% of Minnesotans were fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, March 16, according to state health officials.Though more people are getting the vaccine, prevention measures against COVID-19 are still in place.


“Right now, if they were going to lift the mask policy in Minnesota, I think I’d still continue with that policy in my theaters. I think it’s a small price to pay for some good results,” Mann said.

The family movie chain also operates a seasonal drive-in movie theater in Champlin that was perfect for social distancing.

“We require masks when you’re in the theater, with the exception of once you get in the auditorium you’re allowed to take your mask off to consume beverages or snacks,” Mann said of his other theaters.

Moviegoers are reminded to wear face masks with a sign at the entrance of the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

The Lakes 12 Theatre in November began advertising private group showings for $99 and up of any first-run or classic movie playing Tuesdays and weekends to generate revenue.

“We’ve done an awful lot of private rentals where you come in and rent the auditorium, so people that aren’t comfortable coming back to the theater under normal circumstances can have the option of private rentals for friends, relatives, birthday parties, anniversaries,” Mann said.


The Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter features loungers with roomier seating that allow moviegoers to watch films in recliners that lift their feet up with the touch of an armrest button. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

Mann Theatres also resumed selling popcorn for curbside pickup Saturdays when its movie theaters temporarily closed again in November.

“We’ve done it twice because we’ve been shut down so many various times. The first time we did it, we had a program that anything that would come in, as far as revenue, we donated 10% to the United Way COVID fund,” Mann said.

Family-size bags of popcorn were sold for $15 or participants could get the bag free with the purchase of a $25 Mann Theatres gift card.

Vehicles form a long line as patrons arrive to get curbside popcorn and movie gift cards at Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter in April. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch

“I think a lot of people supported us, our company, just because they want us to remain in business. … And we have loyal customers. Brainerd was a great market for us on curbside popcorn. … It’s our dedicated customers that make this all worthwhile and have kept us afloat.”

Biden announced last week during his national address that the goal was to have all adults eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine by May 1 and that vaccine supply for all adult Americans would be available by the end of the same month.


The Lakes 12 Theatre lobby offers concession items for purchase such as fresh-popped buttery popcorn, candy and soda fountain beverages. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

“I think that’s a very positive sign for our industry,” Mann said. “The more and more the vaccine gets rolled out, the more and more customers will feel comfortable in coming back to a movie theater.”

When Lakes 12 Theatre reopened in June with eight of its 12 auditoriums, it initially offered perennial crowd-pleasers such as “Dirty Dancing,” and in the weeks that followed continued to offer a mix of older fare and few new releases, just like the Sunset Cinema in Pequot Lakes.


Sunset Cinema

Shane Martin is the owner and president of Sunset Cinema. Even though the cineplex has less than half the movie screens as the Lakes 12 Theatre, Martin feels the same pain as Mann.

“It’s been a huge challenge — from the initial closure back in March of 2020 to figuring out ways to safely reopen … to dealing with a lack of films to play … to having to re-close in November, to finding ways to keep the bills paid and finally to now planning to reopen again,” Martin said.

Sunset Cinema is a five-screen movie theater in Pequot Lakes. Nancy Vogt / Pine and Lakes Echo Journal

Martin said he is “very, very grateful” for the assistance he has received from the county, the state and the federal government by way of grants and other funding opportunities that have helped the cinema weather the pandemic.

“It’s been a rollercoaster year and we hope to not have to repeat it,” Martin said.

Martin said he appreciates Klobuchar for heading the Save Our Stages Act, which passed Congress in the last coronavirus relief package in December.

“That legislation was specifically geared toward live music venues, movie theaters and other live event spaces and will be a much-needed lifeline for independent theaters around the country,” Martin said.

RELATED: Lakes 12 Theatre plans to reopen next week
Sunset Cinema plans to reopen April 2 after it temporarily closed Nov. 17

“With the New York. and L.A. markets slowly starting to reopen, we hope there will be enough film product to play and that product will be exciting enough to get people safely back into movie theaters,” 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.

RELATED: Regional theaters grapple with changed Hollywood landscape
“We have always valued our customers and our relationship with the lakes area community and have always felt a tremendous amount of support. We love being here and we love what we do,” Martin said.

The five-screen movie complex opened in 2006 before Martin came along and purchased the first-run theater in 2008.

“I can’t tell you how many people have told us they are grateful to have a local independent theater in the area, and we hope to be able to keep showing films long into the future,” Martin said.

Rialto Theatre

The historic Rialto Theatre located a block north of the stoplight in Aitkin is unmistakable with its art deco aesthetic, but like Sunset Cinema in Pequot Lakes it has been closed since November.

“The lack of product, the lack of movie releases coming out, that we were just, you know, would not have been able to fill the schedule,” said Kirk Peysar, owner of the Rialto Theatre.

The Rialto Theatre was built in 1937 and showed first-run feature films but had to resort to offering older blockbusters such as “Grease” from 1978 and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” from 1982 when it reopened last summer because of a lack of new releases from Tinseltown.

RELATED: Lakes 12 reopens with past crowd pleasers to lure back moviegoers
“Right now, tentatively, we’re looking at, like, an early May reopening. More product is becoming available at that time. And it’s kind of the time of the year that we start to see business increase for the summer,” Peysar said.

The Rialto Theatre was built by Charles E. Lyons more than 80 years ago as a “movie palace” with its single screen. Peysar began working there in 1975 and purchased it in 1986.

The historic Rialto Theatre is located one block north of the stoplight in Aitkin in Aitkin County. Kirk Peysar / Rialto Theatre

“We’re anticipating or hoping that the restrictions will ease. And hopefully, you know, we’ll have an increased comfort level amongst the movie-going public to come out and take in a show,” Peysar said.

Peysar’s first job at the Rialto Theatre in Aitkin when he was a teen was to run the movie projector. That was almost half a century ago, but his love of the movies — and the movie theater — hasn’t waned.

“It’s been a real tough year. We have been very thankful and appreciative for some of our strongest supporters who kept us in their minds and support the theater, and we’re hoping that we can get the ball rolling again and get back to business,” Peysar said.

The Rialto Theatre marquee promotes its showing of the classic hit musical "Grease" starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Submitted photo / Kirk Peysar

Like the Lakes 12 Theatre, the Rialto Theatre also sold popcorn to go after it closed in November and received COVID-19 business relief funding from the government that helped it from closing its doors permanently.

“I’ve been in the movie business for a long, long time. My experience was I rode the ups-and-downs of the movie business,” Peysar said. “And you know what? We always come out on the other side of the tunnel. And, you know, life goes on.”

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The weekly newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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