- Luke Awtry
- Peter Edelmann (left) and Tim Cece
Peter Edelmann has shown many disaster movies since he first opened the Essex Cinemas in October 2001. He never imagined that one day he'd be trying to survive a perfect storm of his own: COVID-19.
When Essex Cinemas premiered as Vermont's first movie theater with stadium seating, Netflix was still delivering DVDs by the U.S. Postal Service to a modest base of subscribers. Other video-streaming services, such as Hulu and Amazon Prime, were years away from launching.
"[The theater] did extremely well in the first couple of years," recalled Edelmann, who also owns the Essex Experience, which includes a shopping center, public green, and the Essex Culinary Resort & Spa. "There wasn't much competition. No one had really invested ... in theaters in the Burlington area."
Then, as other multiplexes opened in Chittenden County and nearby competitors upgraded older theaters, Edelmann tried to stay ahead of the curve. In November 2010, he added a 10th auditorium — the 400-seat T-Rex Theater, with 3D digital capability and a 60-foot curved screen, which he says is still the largest in the state.
But when the coronavirus arrived in Vermont, the writing was on the wall. Edelmann shuttered Essex Cinemas even before Gov. Phil Scott's "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order put an end to large indoor gatherings. And as the pandemic lingered into spring, Edelmann furloughed, then laid off, most of his staff of 50.
"Back at the end of March, early April, it was pretty doom and gloom," he recalled. "We had no idea how bad it was going to be, or how long it would last."
But even as the screens went dark, Edelmann conceived of other ways of bringing people together. On a Saturday night in April, he fired up the popcorn machine and invited the public to drive by the theater and grab a bag. The popcorn was free but he suggested donations of $5 apiece to benefit the Vermont Foodbank. Hundreds of cars queued up, and people contributed more than $3,000.
With the arrival of summer, Edelmann invested in a 40-foot inflatable screen to project movies outdoors on the center green, and he set up an FM broadcast signal as well as an outdoor PA system. Moviegoers could either watch from inside their vehicles, drive-in-theater style, or sit outside in folding chairs. Though the pop-up drive-in never quite reached its 72-car maximum capacity, Edelmann said it helped keep the lights on. The inflatable screen finally had to be packed up once temperatures dipped below 50 degrees.
By August 28, Essex Cinemas was able to reopen its indoor theaters by adopting a host of new safety protocols. In keeping with state Department of Health regulations, seats are distanced, with alternating rows kept vacant and the auditorium filled to no more than 50 percent capacity, or a maximum of 75 people. (Normally, three of the 10 auditoriums seat 200 people each, or more.) Customers must purchase concessions before their movie starts and cannot leave the auditorium except to use the restrooms. Masks are required throughout the building, except when patrons are in their seats and eating or drinking.
The multiplex also upgraded its HVAC system, Edelmann said, and installed line spacers and protective shields at the ticket and concession counter. Staff even use foggers to disinfect the theaters between film showings.
"We lose money every day," Edelmann lamented, "so I'm going to have to cut back and be open just Friday, Saturday and Sunday."
In pre-pandemic times, Essex Cinemas derived about 60 percent of its income from children, teens and twentysomethings. When the Essex Westford School District reopened in late August using a hybrid in-person and online model, Edelmann heard that hundreds of local families were without childcare — so he opened the theaters for them.
For weeks, Essex Cinemas hosted 400 to 500 students, kindergarten through eighth grade, showing them movies during the day and offering them a safe, comfortable and familiar environment while their parents worked. As of October 5, K-5 students in Essex were back in school full time.
"It doesn't help your bottom line," Edelmann noted, "but I feel good about doing it."
Still, the future remains uncertain for Essex Cinemas, especially as it heads into what is normally a lucrative holiday season. As the Hollywood Reporter noted last month, the research and accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers has predicted a nearly 66 percent drop in global cinema revenues for 2020, as many theaters close and major Hollywood releases are delayed until 2021.
For Edelmann, state and federal COVID-19 assistance has eased the pain somewhat. In the spring, Essex Cinemas secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan of $89,000 and a $50,000 grant from the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
"It sounds like a lot ... but you've got your mortgages, 200 grand in property taxes — the town can't waive those — plus all the maintenance and utilities and all that," he said. "It's not a good time to be in the movie business right now."
Despite the pandemic's multifarious challenges, Edelmann said he remains an optimist by nature.
"I do believe that people want to come back, and I believe people will go to the movies again," he said. "We are herd animals, and that's why people like to go to festivals and concerts and movies — because we love that community. I hope [the pandemic] doesn't shatter that part of our psyche too deeply. But I don't think so."