Years before he became a movie theater owner, and while working as a film projectionist, Jeff Logan helped to screen a showing one evening of the movie-turned-television series "M-A-S-H."
There in the projection booth, he made one of what would eventually be many moviegoing memories.
"The audience was laughing so hard, that the glass in the booth portholes — the windows — was actually rattling," he recalled in a recent interview. "And I just thought 'Wow, this is really cool, that that many people are laughing this hard."
Logan, who owns and operates theaters in Mitchell and Huron, S.D., has as apparent a penchant for movie theaters themselves as he does for the movie business. They are places for memory-making, be it alone or with friends or on first dates.
Few such memories, however, have been made in the past year, in which the coronavirus pandemic shuttered businesses across the country and rendered housebound much of the U.S. population. The theater industry’s revenue stream has been reduced to a trickle, with fewer people going to the movies and movie studios releasing fewer pictures.
Were it not for the federal aid that has allowed it to subsist, the industry could have seen approximately 70% of its small and midsized theaters file for bankruptcy or close permanently within months, according to figures from the National Association of Theater Owners.
Even in South Dakota, where no pandemic lockdown mandates have been issued, the industry has suffered since last March.
"It’s been probably the worst year in the business," Logan said.
Keeping the bills paid
Movie theaters have been able to tap into government aid in the form of Paycheck Protection Program loans and other instruments furnished by the U.S. Small Business Administration. With its most recent pandemic relief package, Congress also created a $15 billion grant fund especially for their owners and for those of other entertainment venues.
Some states, like Minnesota, have sought to prop up movie theaters with programs of their own. Lawmakers there in December 2020 approved $8.5 million in grants for theater owners as part of a wider, state-level relief package.
Welcome though the relief may be, it can accomplish only so much.
"It comes nowhere near to replacing the revenue we've lost," Dave Quincer, who owns theaters in Wadena and Perham, Minn., said of the grants he received from the state.
"But it basically keeps the bills paid," he told the Wadena Pioneer Journal, "which is all we’ve been doing for the last eight, nine months or whatever."
The theaters that remain open have, whether by choice or by force of government action, adopted a bevy of new safety practices to help mitigate the health risks posed by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Some leave extra space between seats to allow for social distancing or require masks to be worn, for example, so as to reduce the virus's likelihood of spreading.
But not all customers are comfortable seeing a movie even with those precautions in place. The ones who are have little in the way of new movies to look forward to, according to Cory Keim, who inherited ownership of theaters in Jamestown and Valley City, N.D., from his father.
Attendance is down, Keim said, even as he continues to open one theater daily and offer showings of older and classic films, and jobs have been cut as a result.
"People want the new, big action blockbuster movies shown at the theater," he said.
And according to Logan, that's unlikely to happen anytime soon. The president of the theater owners' association in Minnesota and the Dakotas, and a former member of the association's national board, Logan said movie studios are reluctant to distribute new material across at a time when the cities with the largest moviegoing populations — like New York and Los Angeles — have enacted comparatively harsh pandemic restrictions. Restrictions themselves, he contends, are partly to blame for the situation with which the industry is grappling.
"On one hand, we’re very grateful for the government help. On the other hand, a lot of the help was only because of government-ordered shutdowns," Logan said.
While he still owns and operates the Luxury 5 Cinemas and Starlite Drive-in Theatres in Mitchell and the Huron Luxury Theatres in Huron, Logan did sell the theater he owned for years in Dell Rapids, S.D., because of the pandemic. He has also had to postpone plans for his daughter to take over the business, which he said has "been devastating."
The last year in the movie business has been similarly fraught for Kelli Brown, who together with her husband bought the two-screen Dakota Cinema in Madison, S.D., in September 2019, not long before the coronavirus broke out. Brown had helped to market new films for the former owners in recent years while she working full time at an insurance agency.
She hasn't taken a salary since taking over the theater. But she's hopeful that more of her neighbors will want to go back to the movies once they feel safe to, and said buying a small theater in a tight-knit town like hers was never about money in the first place.
"When we bought the theater, we didn't buy it because we thought we could get rich off of it. We bought it because our community needs it," Brown said.