NIANTIC — Niantic Cinema announced on Monday that it is closing its doors, citing a lack of interest from filmgoers since the COVID pandemic and operating costs that are “skyrocketing,” one of several movie theaters in the region who talked to CT Examiner about their recent struggles.
Peter Mitchell, the manager of the theater, said that the decision to close came from a confluence of factors. Originally, the theater, which had closed temporarily in September, planned to reopen around December 15 — traditionally one of the busiest seasons for the film industry. But Mitchell said that the films scheduled to be released this year were “not that encouraging.”
He also said that the business had been hit hard by inflation – the cost of electricity had gone up, and calling a repair person to fix the ice machine and the theater’s HVAC system was much more costly than it had been in earlier years. That combined with the decline in attendance
“It was kind of a group of things just all added up to — we can’t make this work anymore,” said Mitchell.
The small theater is part of a larger decline in the movie theater industry. The New York Times reported in September that 500 screens had closed since the start of the pandemic.
In southeast Connecticut, that trend has extended across the shoreline, with the Branford 12 Cinemas closing in January and the Marquee Cinemas in Westbrook closing in September. Chief Operating Officer of Marquee Cinemas James Cox told Zip06 that the reason for the Westbrook theater’s closure was the rise in streaming services combined with the COVID shutdowns.
Larger movie theater corporations have also been struggling. In September, the company Cineworld, which owns Regal Cinemas, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In a September report, the company said that recovery from the pandemic has been “slower than expected” and said that while the company expects improvements in the fourth quarter of 2022, admissions in 2023 and 2024 are still expected to fall below pre-pandemic levels.
The closed Branford 12 Cinemas was a Regal subsidiary. A Regal Theater in Stonington also closed in September.
Mitchell, whose family purchased the Niantic Cinemas in 1978, said the decline in interest in movie theaters hadn’t started with the pandemic. Even before, he said, streaming services like Netflix and AmazonPrime were leading more and more people to watch movies from home. He also said that there was no longer an “exclusivity period” in which movie theaters were the only place people could see new films — instead, new films are now broadcast on streaming services.
“I think it’s kind of like a golden age of television right now. People can really get into binge watching TV shows,” said Mitchell.
The pandemic drove the nail into the coffin, Mitchell said. People invested in large television screens for their homes. The health department told him that people aged 65 and older — a huge percent of their customer base — should stay home. And even now, he said, he thinks people are wary of going out to a public place.
Harold Blank, who owns Mystic Luxury Cinemas and Madison Cinemas, and has recently purchased the Westbrook Cinemas, said that attendance at the theaters this year was 68 percent of what it was in 2019. But, unlike Mitchell, he said he believed people would come back to the movies once more quality films were released. He said they had already seen a return to the theaters in June and July with the release of films like Where the Crawdads Sing, Top Gun and Jurassic World.
But in August, Blank said, the supply of new films dried up, and stayed dry through the fall.
“We were like a grocery store with no meat and vegetables,” he said. “The theaters need a more steady diet of film, 12 months a year — and I think that that is going to improve over the next year and into 2024.”
He agreed with Mitchell, however, that the coming Christmas season films, like Avatar and Strange World, would probably not draw as many people to the box office as anticipated. Even the Black Panther film, he said, wasn’t doing as well as predicted.
Blank said he was also investing in improvements to the theaters themselves. At the Mystic Luxury Cinemas, he said, they had upgraded the infrastructure and offered diverse programming and a bigger assortment of food and drinks. He said they were planning to make big changes to the Westbrook theater as well.
“I think it would be great to design a theater today … to the habits of the movie-going public post-pandemic,” he said.
Mitchell said the Niantic theater had tried to compensate for the pandemic effects by hosting group specials, working with the New London Recreation Department and with schools. When they reopened in 2021 after the COVID shutdown, he said, they hosted “vaccinated-only” showings on Mondays to try and bring people out. When the 2022 Elvis film came out, Mitchell said, he partnered with other businesses in the downtown area to host a “fifties day” in Niantic, complete with an Elvis tribute artist who performed in front of the theater.
But in the end, when he sat down and looked at the finances with his uncles and his father, it didn’t make sense to reopen.
“We came to the realization that it just really is time to turn the page. And it’s very sad,” he said.
Mitchell said the family plans to keep the 12,000 square foot building — possibly repurposing it into apartments.
“We will just keep our head up,” he said. “[The] New Year always brings new things, new opportunities.”
Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.