Since the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown, many businesses suffered economic blows, with some even being forced to close their doors.
Small-town movie theaters were no different.
Nationwide, there are about 100 fewer movie theaters now than there were before the pandemic with about 1,500 fewer screens. Even after the quarantine was lifted, studios released fewer movies in theaters in 2022 compared to before 2020. That, along with the rise of streaming services has given movie theaters obstacles to overcome.
For small-town theaters, both business-led and community-run, fewer movies could result in fewer overall ticket sales.
In order to overcome these issues, many small-town theaters have been looking for new ways to stay active in their communities. Through community outreach and social media, these small-town theaters have introduced new additions and events to stay afloat and support the community.
Here are three Nebraska theaters that are taking different approaches.
The Rivoli Theatre in Seward
Sitting in the heart of downtown Seward, the Rivoli Theatre’s current owners, Chuck and Julie Wisehart, have operated the theater since March 1979. The theater itself has two screens, which seat up to 70 and 250 people. It also has a video store, which was built during the 1980s after the family bought the building next door.
At one point in time, the theater would show four different movies in a week, said Connie Greger, the Wisehart’s daughter and manager of the theater. Now almost three years after 2020 and the rise of streaming services, the situation if far different.
But Greger said drawing people to the theater isn’t the main issue. Instead, it’s getting films to play at the theater. With 2020 affecting the number of movies being released, it’s been slim pickings for the theater, especially in a small community. It’s even led to the theater having to stop using its second screen due to the lack of movies.
Yet, according to Greger, just picking a film isn’t as simple as it can be. If the theater wants to play a film it needs to follow regulations made by the studio, which can hurt theaters like the Rivoli.
“For ‘A Man Called Otto,’ we had to wait two weeks to get that,” Greger said. “So, the people who didn’t want to wait probably went to Lincoln. Then for ‘Avatar: The Way of Water,’ we could only get that if we played it in 3D and had it for four weeks. That killed us because nothing lasts for four weeks in a small town like this.”
At the start of 2023, things were looking grim with the lack of movies to show. So, Greger said the theater decided to take a risk and reach out to the community on its social media page. The plan: find out what older films people would come to see.
Greger explained that by paying studio terms or giving them part of the revenue for the showing, theaters can play older films to help draw in people who want to see a classic be played on the big screen once more. Greger said they’re experimenting with it and it’s even a gamble to do. For Valentine’s Day week, the theater decided to show “Titanic,” but Greger wasn’t sure if it was a good idea.
That was until she went onto their social media page.
“I went on and put it out there that we were showing ’Titanic,’” Greger said. “People said they’ll come and so we put it up.”
Since that post, the theater had numerous requests and has done its best to show them. While not every movie brought in a big crowd, those that do create quite a buzz, she said, citing the 1974 film “Blazing Saddles” that showed earlier in February.
“We had a bunch of people come from different towns that had never been here before,” Greger said. “That was a lot of fun. It’s so much fun when we have big movies that bring people from other towns here because it leads to our community bringing much support to them.”
Now heading into March, Greger said the theater has many event ideas for the month, including a Lord of the Rings marathon. The plan is to play all three movies each week where there’ll be cosplay, games and a panel discussion featuring a professor from Concordia University who teaches a class on J.R.R. Tolkien.
“I’m going to try and reach out to other towns and groups to get people to come,” Greger said. “It’s so much fun to have something like this.”
The Majestic Theatre in Hebron
Since 2013, the Majestic Theatre has been a non-profit community theater. It’s run by the Arts Council of Thayer County, which manages the theater and its volunteer workers. The council formed in October 2012 when the theater’s owners announced that they would close due to a lack of funds. After the announcement, members of the Thayer County Economic Development Alliance came together and began fundraising.
The group immediately decided to form a nonprofit to promote the arts in Thayer County. The arts council was then formed in March 2013 and began managing the theater. Since then, all operations and renovations have been done by volunteers who are dedicated to preserving and maintaining the theater for the entertainment and education of Thayer County residents and visitors.
“There were some people in the community who knew that it was very important to have this theater in our town,” said Carlece Kenner, arts council president. “It gives young people, old people and people in between something to do.”
Now, 10 years after reviving the theater, the council still runs the theater with volunteers and all the money goes into keeping the theater open.
The theater still receives community funds, Kenner said, but also found other ways to bring customers in. The theater holds speech contests, civic programs and overnight girl scout events — and it even sells its own popcorn bucket.
While theater looks for ways to bring the people of the town together, it also wants to help it, too, said Kristy Lukert, arts council vice president. About two or three years ago, the town faced a summer without a swimming pool, so she and the council decided to help out.
“We wanted to do something for the kids,” Lukert said. “For the last two years, for eight weeks in the summer, we offered movies on Tuesdays, which we don’t usually do, and averaged over a hundred people for each showing. Now, even after the swimming pool reopened, we still offer that.”
The theater remains present on its social media page to announce events and upcoming movies. It also recently celebrated its 10th Anniversary, where it recognized the theater’s decade-long journey and honored everyone who played a part in keeping it open.
“When the theater is lit up at night, it makes our downtown feel alive,” Kenner said.
The Gothenburg Community Playhouse/Sun Theatre
Like the Majestic Theatre, the Gothenburg Community Playhouse/Sun Theatre was also a business-owned theater for a long time. Unlike the Majestic, Gothenburg’s theater became a non-profit in 1983.
The theater thrives on its unique status of being both a movie theater and a stage theater. But after 2020, Jessie Hruza, executive director of the playhouse and theater, knew the theater needed to start brainstorming ideas to help keep people coming in.
“We’re trying and we’re loving some of the new stuff that we’re doing,” Hruza said. “It’s fun. People need fun things to do when there isn’t anything to do. So we’re trying to give them something to do.”
The theater now hosts a wide variety of events, including trivia and comedy nights, fundraisers, dances, holiday events, concerts and even cornhole tournaments. In mid-February it hosted its first-ever Wii Sports tournament, which it promoted heavily on its social media page.
“It was the first time we’ve ever done that,” Hruza said. “I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it. But it was good for what we needed it to be. So now we know what we need to do and add on for next time.”
Social media isn’t Hruza’s only means of communication either. If she needs volunteers, ideas or support, she said she uses every possible way to contact the community — email, call, text or just simply talking to folks.
For Hruza it’s important to reach out because every volunteer is important to the theater.
“It shows immense support,” Hruza said. “For them to take time off and help is just wonderful. It shows how much they love the theater and how much they want it to stay. If we didn’t have volunteers we wouldn’t have the theater.”