CONWAY — You could say it’s like a bad movie, but who would believe this plot?
Due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on declining movie attendance, the Mountain Valley Mall Cinema 7 in North Conway come Sunday are taking an extended intermission, manager Ed Gearity said Thursday.
The seven theaters had closed last March when the pandemic first broke out in keeping with CDC and state safety protocol guidelines. Gearity said his company prior to the pandemic had been negotiating with its landlords, KGI Properties, owner of the mall, to expand to an eighth theater in the former Panda Garden restaurant area.
Once all theaters in the state were given the go-ahead by the state, Gearity cautiously reopened over the July 4th weekend.
“Unfortunately I will be closing the theater down again for the time being after (Friday and Saturday screenings)," he told the Sun. "I’m hoping this is a temporary thing and we will be back up and running again in a few months, but with this pandemic nothing is certain.”
Gearity, of Silver Lake, said it is a difficult decision but one the company must take due to declining numbers of audience members.
“This past Friday we had 24 people walk through the door and another 54 on Saturday so that’s 78 people over two days,” said Gearity, noting that the full capacity of the seven-theater complex is 745 seats but that he customarily likes to leave 15 percent capacity open to allow for greater comfort for guests."
He reiterated it is not a permanent shutdown.
“This is a state of stall right now — we are not shutting things down permanently; it’s a pause. Hopefully by Thanksgiving, or Christmas, we will be able to resume operations,” said Gearity, a 30-year employee of the theaters’ owners, Your Neighborhood Theatre, owned by Belmont Capital Group of Cambridge, Mass.
He said one major problem facing small theater operators in more rural parts of the country is the movie industry’s reluctance to release new films.
“What has happened to small operators like myself is that we are really at the mercy of Hollywood,” said Gearity. “Without new products coming out, it’s hard to get folks to come to the theaters and feeling easy about it. Even though our theaters at the mall are spacious and large, people are still fearful as they just don’t know.”
Instead, Geary said, studios are releasing product to video on demand outlets such as Hulu, Disney and Amazon.
“They are trying to figure out their way through all of this and the have left us (theaters) behind,” said Gearity.
The release of several new movies has been stalled, such as the long-awaited new James Bond film, “No Time To Die,” which delayed its planned November 2020 release to spring 2021.
“And now we’re hearing they may just go to video on demand. It’s an example of what’s happening,” said Gearity, estimating there are probably “35 to 40 films” that are being held up from release.
“They did release ‘Tenet,’ and we are showing it. It is a really good film — but it didn’t draw across the country for the numbers they were hoping for,” said Gearity.
In addition to “Tenet,” Gearity’s complex this weekend is showing “Come Play,” “The War with Grandpa,” “Honest Thief,” “After We Collided,” “The Empty Man” and “Alita: Battle Angel.”
He said he used to have a staff of 12 but that since reopening, he has had a staff of three.
He said his staff have been following good sanitizing and safe distancing protocols since the reopening, safely distancing theatergoers at least 6 feet apart and wiping down all surfaces along with putting up plastic dividers at the counter.
Customers are requested to wear masks when coming from the parking lot to the inside of the mall, but not the wearing of masks is left to customers’ discretion inside the theaters.
“Some do wear them, as do all of our staff — but people are eating popcorn during the films so we don’t require them during the screenings,” said Gearity.
He said his customer base is always a mix during the busy times of the year between locals and visitors and that during slower season, he said, “We depend on the locals … We have a great community.”
He planned to tell his three-person staff of the shutdown Thursday evening.
In addition to the Mt. Valley Cinema 7 in North Conway, Gearity said Your Neighborhood Theatre/Belmont Capital Group operates 11 theaters and two drive-ins throughout New England, including two other facilities in New Hampshire (Claremont Cinema 6 in Claremont and Gilford Cinema 8 in Gilford).
All three facilities in New Hampshire are being temporarily closed after this weekend.
For more information, go to showtimes.com/movie-theaters/mountain-valley-mall-cinema-7-7394 or yourneighborhoodtheatre.com or call (603) 356-6410.