‘Like the best news ever’: With little to no revenue, movie theatre owners say state funding is a lifeline

BELOIT, Wis. – Movie theatre owners in Wisconsin are calling recently announced financial help from the State a lifeline.

With little to no revenue coming in during the pandemic, industry experts estimate that 69% of small to midsized theatres are at risk of bankruptcy or closure without some sort of aid.

“I never imagined this. It is so tough,” said Chris Johnson, CEO of Classic Cinemas. “We’re scratching and clawing on everything.”

The pandemic arrived like a cruel plot twist at Classic Cinemas Beloit Theatre. Johnson bought and opened the theatre late last year, pouring money into renovations.

“We installed all new recliner seats, redid everything in the theatre and spent quite a bit of money,” he said. “Right before we finished the project, we had to close.”

The theatre has been closed for the better part of the past six months, only opening for a few weeks in the spring, and it’s not alone. George Rouman, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners of Wisconsin & Upper Michigan, said without new movies from Hollywood and the usual stream of customers, many theatres have been at a standstill with bills adding up.

Rouman owns a nearly 100-year-old family-run operation in Rhinelander. The Rouman Cinema is now open during select hours.

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“It’s been a struggle to fill our screens with content,” he said. “At this point, we’re just looking for a bridge to get to the other side, whatever that looks like for us.”

Rouman said movie theatres are typically forgotten when it comes to financial help, so hearing the news that they would be eligible for funding was a boost. Gov. Tony Evers announced $100 million in funding to support tourism, entertainment and cultural venues impacted by the coronavirus this week, including $10 million for privately owned movie theaters throughout the state.

“It’s such a lifeline,” Rouman said. “I can’t even tell you how big of a deal it is.”

“It’s huge … This will absolutely save the operation” Johnson said. “I can’t say how great this is. It’s like the best news ever.”

Johnson had planned to open in November for the new James Bond movie premiere, which has been delayed. Now he’s hoping for December.

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While Rouman is happy about the State help, he said more assistance will be needed in the future.

“At the end of the day, real, meaningful support needs to come from the federal government,” he said.