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An independent movie theater operator facing ‘great unknowns’

The empty Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, Tennessee, reopened on April 23, but executive director Stephanie Silverman says the crowds have been "inconsistent." Tom Gatlin courtesy Belcourt Theatre

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The movie theater business is taking a huge hit from the coronavirus crisis. Studios are delaying the theatrical releases of major films. Analysts say AMC Entertainment, the nation’s largest theater chain, is inching closer to bankruptcy, and theater operators big and small are trying to figure out what their businesses will look like if they can’t pack rooms full of people for a good, long while.

Stephanie Silverman is one theater operator on the smaller end of the scale. She’s the executive director of the Belcourt Theatre, a nonprofit film center in Nashville, Tennessee, and one of the 10 people we profiled in our series looking at the American labor force called United States of Work

The Belcourt officially closed its doors to moviegoers a month ago today, so we called her back to check in. “The anxiety level is for real,” Silverman told Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal. “But it’s because of the great unknowns, so it’s not really something you can address and check off the list. So it’s just a weird time to struggle through.”

One of the biggest unknowns is when and how the Belcourt will open again. “In some ways, we learned some good lessons as we were closing down about how we would reopen,” she said. One example of that includes limiting the number of tickets sold to leave enough room in the theater for social distancing. “Our biggest theater seats 332 people. We will probably only sell 40% of the tickets in that hall so that people can be appropriately away from each other,” she said.

In the meantime, the Belcourt is trying to keep operating in other ways. They’re selling “tickets” for people to stream movies at home, offering film education programs and hosting movie screenings on the streaming platform Twitch. 

Another “great unknown” for theater operators is how long it will take for people to feel safe going out to the movies again. “We’re just very cognizant that the ramp-up for us is gonna be probably more towards the tail end of whatever [the] recovery looks like,” Silverman said. “But that being said, I don’t think everyone’s gonna want to stay at home and watch Netflix forever. I think they’re gonna want to come out and see a movie on a big screen.”

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