New York City’s plans to reopen March 5 are a good omen for exhibition, but it comes as Cinemark, the nation’s third largest exhibitor, closes three theaters representing 48 screens. The theaters are located in Evanston, Illinois; Norfolk, Virginia; and Laredo, Texas. The Evanston and Norfolk theaters had 18 screens each, and were considered state of the art when they opened about 20 years ago. The Laredo location, with 12 screens, opened in 1993 and more recently showed second-run titles.
Of the three, the Century 18 in Evanston is the most significant. Evanston, the first suburb north of Chicago, has about 75,000 residents and is the home of Northwestern University. It’s regarded as a largely upscale audience with a strong interest in specialized film. As a comparison, imagine cities like Palo Alto, California or Cambridge, Massachusetts without a theater. There are no known threats to their theaters, but like Evanston they are mid-sized satellite cities bolstered by academic institutions and older professionals.
The Century was the 10th-biggest grossing theater in the Chicago area, a market that ranks as the third biggest in the country. With a gross of $6.3 million in 2019 (the last full year of operation), it was Cinemark’s top-grossing complex in the region. Located in downtown Evanston, it saw some impressive success in revitalizing the area for movies after the city lost much of its audience to other theaters.
Six of its screens were branded as “CineArts,” which Cinemark reserved for its programming of specialized films. That made it a prime spot for limited opening runs in the area, sometimes as a second theater that played with an in-city location. Specialized distributors crave theaters like these and it’s a location that’s hard to replace.
Few edifices age as poorly as movie complexes and, despite its success, the Century 18 represents a vulnerable type of theater. Cinemark acquired it when it bought the Century Theaters chain in 2008. It’s well constructed but as an “older” build, it predated the current trend towards stadium seating and other amenities. Cinemark was already working to renegotiate the lease when COVID struck — something that many exhibitors are expected to attempt this year.
As major chains regroup, expect all to reduce their sizes by dispensing with expendable theaters. The new normal may become regional options over local ones, a pattern we’ve already seen with bookstores and other brick-and-mortar retail. Losing theaters may also create a Walmart effect of a once-thriving retail district damaged by the loss of a key element. A theater can support restaurants, coffee shops, other shops that then draw people to a downtown area. Take away its core draw, and real damage is done.
Evanston officials want to keep the theater active. In past decades, single-screen theaters could be transitioned into other uses. It’s hard to translate an 18-screen complex to other purposes. Finding a new operator could take a year or more. Location and past performance make it attractive, tempered by uncertainty around audiences’ willingness to return in the face of alternative platforms. The most likely scenario would be a regional operator, possibly as a management contract.
Theaters often change hands, but it’s unusual to see a major chain walk away. We will see more Evanstons, which suggests a downsizing industry in which maximum presentation, ability to thrive with franchise titles, less competition, and central locations will all be essential for survival.