By Rabia Gursoy
Meeting up with film lovers to enjoy a nice afternoon on April 4, Kaitlyn Champlin turns her computer camera on and takes a seat in front of the screen, where other members of the Eastern Suffolk Cinema, a movie club on Long Island, wait. The club has started to come together on alternative Skype meetings every Saturday, instead of the usual in-person meetups, which have been canceled since the non-essential lock-up put in place by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The largest theater chains— AMC Theatres, Regal Cinemas, and Cinemark — had to close all locations in the country after the shutdown of non-essential services on March 16. The box office last weekend hit a new decade low, bringing in only $5k. At the same time last year, that number was over $200 million. The closure has pushed film companies to offer their movie releases much earlier than expected through online platforms. Universal Studios has released the Elisabeth Moss horror film “The Invisible Man,” the satirical thriller “The Hunt” and Focus Features’ period comedy-drama “Emma” on demand. Movie theatres are unable to draw in revenue as they have just recently moved to on-demand platforms struggling to compete with streaming giants such as Netflix and Hulu.
Champlin and her friends are among many film buffs who have projected their theatre culture to watch parties using Netflix, Skype, and Facebook.
“We have been using Skype, though the lag is off-putting,” Champlin said.” Once this crisis has passed, we intend on watching the film, meeting up in person to discuss, and picking a movie every six months to go see as a group but for now, we are online.”
Cinema clubs such as the Eastern Suffolk Cinema and the Cult Film Classics Club of Eastern Suffolk have also had to adjust their meetings to the coronavirus. The Cult Film of Classics Club of Eastern Suffolk has over a hundred members and used to host movie nights, buying group tickets to theatres and discussions in a dining venue of their choice. They have now switched to watch parties, where the host of the party can share their screen simultaneously to everyone who has logged into whichever platform is being used. The host has the ability to pause and control the movie during the entire time. There is also a chat feature where participants can comment at any moment.
“I use Netflix to watch things with my friends every week now since we can’t go to the movie theatres,” Ceyda Iyimaya, member of Huntington Film and Discussion, said. “It’s not the same as being at the movie theatres but at least it’s an option.”
The Eastern Suffolk Cinema usually plans monthly gatherings in local theatres and restaurants for members to watch a movie together and then have a discussion. However, due to the coronavirus, the organizers have opened virtual meetings. The club has over 50 members and continues to grow.
“We’re scheduled to meet in restaurants or eating establishments physically meeting but with everything going on with COVID-19, we had to think outside of the box,” Nick Bambach, Eastern Suffolk Cinema Club organizer. “ I thought it was a good idea to move it from physical to online.”
Theater stocks have plunged. The domestic box office earned $600 million less in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same quarter in 2019. One of the biggest companies, AMC is currently saddled with $4.9 billion debt. Many companies worry that they won’t be able to pay back debts. The financial pressure brought by the virus has affected over 150,000 employees.
“There are talks of bankruptcy,” Alex Alvarado, manager at AMC Glencove, said. “They furloughed 26,000 employees, including corporate besides like main corporate people, basically, but they’re receiving no income whatsoever.”
As the theatre association struggles, they asked both Congress and the White House to consider multiple measures, including loan guarantees and tax benefits to assist employers in a statement last week. The association had authorized $1 million to be used from a reserve fund to aid employees.
“They’re not able to basically use their assets to survive this if I were to guess,” Alvarado said. “So, I don’t know what my future holds. And I feel like me and a bunch of other employees are the same way. We don’t really know what’s coming.”