Prairie Cinema, sister theaters reopen

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By Willis Patenaude 

 

“Closing our doors was a shock,” said Lee and Diane Akin, the owners of Prairie Cinema since 2011, when they purchased and renamed the former Star Cinema in Prairie du Chien. The Akins also own Elkader Cinema and the North Grand Cinema in Elkader and Ames, Iowa, respectively.

Instead of preparing for movie nights and bringing entertainment to the small town they love, they spent the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic “communicating with banks and applying for state and federal programs designed to help businesses during the pandemic.” 

They’ve also been participating in Zoom meetings with various movie exhibition groups, sharing stories, plans and any news out of Hollywood with the public. But as time went on and the news changed with regularity, even the communication suffered. 

“We would put out the best information we had, only to see it change the next day or the next week,” Lee said. 

A lot of the confusion stemmed from Hollywood pushing back the schedules for their big movies, leaving theaters with “almost no new product to play.” 

While theaters have been able to open since the end of May, without new product, it simply didn’t make sense. The idea of playing “repertory product” or older movies just to stay active was a path some theaters took, but, according to Lee, “Sadly, you end up spending so much on labor and utilities that you’re better off being closed.” 

It wasn’t just the financial considerations; it was also health concerns that kept the doors closed. 

In the interim, the Akins have seen a “nearly 100 percent reduction in revenue for five full months.” Though they were able to secure PPP loans and other grants, they’re still loans that must be paid back at some point, which requires revenue. 

One way they attempted to generate revenue was with Popcorn at the Curb events, where they sold popcorn on select weekends at the theater. The events provided some hours of work to employees and smiles to the community, and some revenue was created. 

Initially, the events were “fantastic,” according to Lee. Although the public turnout and their popularity eventually diminished, the Akins don’t regret doing them. 

“We are very grateful for the assistance that we have gotten,” they said.

But the reality of bills keeps coming, even if the doors are closed, and as Lee noted, “Only time will tell what the overall impact will be.”

After surviving the previous five months, the Prairie Cinema made its return Friday night, Aug. 21, it’s sign once again brightening Marquette Road. 

Whether it will be triumphant remains to be seen. Even now, the “movie slate is very much in flux,” said Lee. 

The situation makes it difficult to know what will be shown in the coming weeks, and while the Akins wish they had a firmer answer, it’s really out of their hands and rests almost entirely in Hollywood’s, who have made decisions that concern Lee. The decisions, he remarked, don’t seem to take into account the importance of theatres or the “symbiotic relationship” between studios and theaters. 

It’s also curious to Lee that, “in spite of the COVID-19 numbers being worse now than in March...Hollywood is releasing new product.” 

One such movie is the heavily anticipated “Tenet” from director Christopher Nolan. 

“From what we understand, it’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller, so we need to be a part of that,” Lee said. 

Understanding that you can’t stay closed forever and miss out on potential blockbusters, the decision was made to reopen and operate under the guidelines of the National Association of Theater Owners. 

What does that look like? High-touch surfaces will be wiped down often and touchless pay options will be encouraged. Plexiglas panels have been hung in front of each selling station, hand sanitizer is available at multiple locations in the lobby and show times are being spaced out more than usual. Customers are required to wear masks at all times except when they’re eating or drinking and there will be two empty seats between parties. Attendance has been capped at 50 percent. 

At the Akin’s Elkader Cinema, in Elkader, Iowa, that half-capacity is 36 people. Opening night saw the theater showing “Unhinged,” and according to employee Matthew Wilke, there were 15 to 20 patrons. 

“We really didn’t know what to expect, but I think it’s a really good turnout,” Wilke said. 

As always, the community was supportive, and the Akins remain confident the public understands the reasons for the safety precautions. 

“We are grateful that the public has had time to adjust to the idea of wearing masks. The vast majority of people understand that it is one of the best ways society has to reduce the spread of the virus…our customers are supportive,” Lee said. 

Lee and Diane want the community to know that they are committed to keeping them safe and healthy. While they wait for Hollywood to make up its mind, Prairie Cinema is attempting to return to normal, whatever that is at the moment, and they “hope people will give the theater a try.” 

Willis Patenoude is a reporter for the North Iowa Times-Clayton County Register.

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