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Area movie theaters battle to stay alive amid executive orders

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected numerous industries in multiple ways, and the movie theater industry is no different.

Mills Theatre in Lake Mills has been closed since March 17, according to Lake Mills Entertainment Inc. board member Teresa Nicholson, when Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ stay-at-home executive order went into effect.

Mills Theatre is a nonprofit, Nicholson said, but it still has bills to pay — to concessions suppliers, to film studios, overhead from keeping the building maintained, and loans from any construction or other equipment used or purchased. While the theater’s goal isn’t to make a profit, it does need to cover expenses, she said.

“Being closed for nearly eight weeks has been extremely difficult,” she said.

Something else that has challenged the movie theater industry has been the increased presence of digital viewing platforms. While the coronavirus pandemic has caused some movies to push back their release dates until it’s safe to have a movie premier event, others have skipped the theaters altogether and gone straight to digital streaming platforms.

“Theaters are always fighting digital streaming platforms,” Nicholson said. “That’s hurt us, too.”

Lake Mills Entertainment Inc., the group that runs the nonprofit behind Mills Theatre, has been involved in multiple fundraising efforts while the theater has been closed to the public. Concessions have been sold twice so far, once during a Lake Mills community car cruise and once from the theater itself. While initially Nicholson said there wasn’t a high demand for concessions, she has heard more community members asking, so the board is considering setting another time to purchase concessions from the theater. That information would be shared on the Mills Theatre Facebook page once it’s set, she said.

While Albert Lea’s CEC Mall Cinema 7 Theatre and Northwood Theatre had not returned requests for comment as of press time, both theaters’ Facebook pages showed they have been selling concessions as well. Albert Lea will next sell concessions from 1 to 7 p.m. May 22, and Northwood planned to sell concessions May 22 and 23. Wells’ Flame Theatre will sell popcorn from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday this week, according to its Facebook page.

In addition to selling concessions, Mills Theatre was able to receive some fundraising thanks to the North Iowa Strong Campaign. The campaign, organized by D & D Sales of Mason City, sold T-shirts, with 10% of each shirt purchase going toward the nonprofit of the purchaser’s choosing. Nicholson said the theater received a couple hundred dollars thanks to the campaign.

The theater has applied for some assistance and has received some from state and federal levels, but Nicholson said that doesn’t go far enough with nearly two months of being closed.

“We hope that, as Iowa has more restrictions lifted, when it’s safe to do so and makes sense to public health, we’ll reopen,” Nicholson said.

The theater has two screens, one that can seat about 200 people and one that seats about 90, and Nicholson said it’s easy for the theater to have customers maintain social distance guidelines or operate at half or one-third capacity — something restaurants and other businesses will likely be doing as they reopen to the public. The theater was also implementing having employees wear gloves, giving them the option of wearing masks and having more hand sanitizing stations before it was forced to close, and Nicholson said that will continue whenever the theater is able to open.

“We want everyone to feel safe when they come back,” she said.

Nicholson said the board is keeping close tabs on the restriction lifts as they unfold. She said they have to watch especially close so that they can book films to show, something she foresees as a challenge since Mills Theatre will have to compete against larger cinemas, most opening around the same time, for showing rights. In the meantime, people can donate to the theater, which would be a tax write-off due to its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. Donations should be made out to Lake Mills Entertainment Inc. and can be mailed to P.O. Box 73, Lake Mills, IA 50450; or to the theater itself at 216 W. Main St., Lake Mills, IA 50450.

“We’re looking forward to being open again and seeing everyone at the theater,” Nicholson said.


About Colleen Harrison

Colleen Harrison is the photo editor at the Albert Lea Tribune. She does photography and writes general-assignment stories.

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