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Athens movie theater struggles as industry still feels effects of pandemic

Published: Apr. 9, 2021 at 8:48 AM CDT
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ATHENS, Ala. (WAFF) - We all know the feeling of walking into a movie theater and of course, we know the smell. You see kids waiting in line, families enjoying time together and couples on dates. You smell the buttery popcorn and soft baked pretzels!

But at Cinemagic Theatre in Athens, a local hotspot that’s been around for more than 20 years, business has not been the same since before March 2020. In fact, the theater doesn’t even have enough customers to stay open on weekdays.

Owner Ralph Freehauf said his team tried their best to adapt to the times. Shortly after the state shut down, the theater offered drive-in movies. Unfortunately, it did not play out as expected.

His team tried again in July and had some success. However, when kids went back to school in August, business slowed down again. By winter, the theater had to close its doors on weekdays. Ever since then, both the drive-in and indoor theater are only open Friday through Sunday.

“People were not coming during the week. Some nights we didn’t have anybody at all,” Freehauf said. “We keep trying to work but you need to have customers. And Hollywood was not putting out movies of any consequence and so I guess our first big movies for a year now has been Godzilla Vs. Kong and we have done well with that.”

When Freehauf was forced to close his theater last March, he thought it would be for just a short time. He even told his employees he would keep them on the payroll. But paying the $10,000 monthly mortgage soon became a challenge, and Freehauf had to let go 9 of his 14 employees. He’s still working to hire them back.

“Movie theaters make two thirds of their money for the year, during the three months of summer, the week of Thanksgiving and two weeks of Christmas. And the rest of the months of the year, we are lucky if we break even,” Freehauf said. “But last year we lost our summer business completely and it’s been a struggle, it really has and it’s not over yet.”

Luckily, there are some major movies set to release in the next few months including Black Widow, James Bond and Top Gun. Freehauf is hopeful these will lure folks back to movie theaters.

Freehauf said his theater is following CinemaSafe COVID-19 guidelines, which the National Association of Theatre Owners came up with when the nation slowly started reopening.

Social distancing, masks and reduced capacity are a major part of this plan. But theaters are also focusing on new air filtration systems and employee health training. At Cinemagic Theatre, there’s a new HVAC system and capacity is limited to 50 percent.

At the end of the day, Freehauf wants the community to remember, ticket prices have not increased and movie theaters are valuable, historical assets to communities.

“Seeing a movie is the cheapest form of entertainment around. You go to any of the pro-games and likely spend 100 dollars a ticket, where our tickets are only 7 or 8 dollars a piece. We are economical and we are a value to our community that we reside in,” Freehauf said.

Despite a tough year, Freehauf is thankful for his community and wants everybody to know his team is working hard to keep the business alive.

“Go see a movie on the big screen, tonight. Not on your cell phone. Not on your little tablet. Not on your television,” Freehauf said. “It’s a scientific fact that seeing a movie on the big screen is a lot better for your eyes and your brain than watching a movie on your tablet or telephone. Come see a movie on the big screen!”

If you want to watch a movie on the big screen, check out cinemagictheatre.net. You can find ticket pricings, showtimes and more.

As Freehauf said, the show must go on!

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