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Movie Theaters Face Uncertain Future As Studios Move Toward Streaming Releases

An empty movie theater. (Getty Images)
An empty movie theater. (Getty Images)

Warner Brothers recently announced it will release its slate of 2021 movies on its streaming service, HBO Max, on the same day the films hit theaters.

Already shuttered by the coronavirus, both major chains and small movie theaters are struggling to adapt. In Baltimore, two theaters — The Charles Theatre and The Senator Theatre — have so far stood the test of time but face an uncertain future.

Co-owner Kathleen Lyon says Warner Brothers’ streaming decision could hurt movie theaters, but she’s glad the studio will still make the films made available to cinemas.

“I believe many of these larger pictures are meant to be seen on the big screen and with other people,” she says. “And there’s a cinematic experience here that a streaming service just cannot offer.”

Theaters weren’t able to screen movies at all for much of the pandemic. Soon after cinemas closed on March 16 in Maryland, movies slated for release during the spring weren’t made available to theaters, Lyon says.

Small theaters aren’t the only ones feeling the impact: AMC, one of the biggest theater chains in the country, says it will run out of money by mid-January without $750 million from investors.

Theaters received some help from the Paycheck Protection Program in the spring but nothing since then, Lyons says. Her theaters can hold out for a couple of months, but depending on the cost of bills, the money will run out.

“We’re hoping we can get to the other side of this, and if we are able to, I do believe that people will come. And there’ll be a renaissance for movie theaters,” she says. “It just, can they get there?”

Since March, The Charles and The Senator have been open for six weeks in total. The theaters reopened in September for the theatrical release of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet”, but audiences trickled in, she says. The theater screened revivals and smaller movies to draw movie-goers in, but then voluntarily closed as coronavirus cases started to spike after Halloween.

James “Buzz” Cusack, Lyon’s co-owner and father, takes a more optimistic view of the changing industry than his daughter. The situation doesn’t feel as dire to him, he says, because he’s confident audiences will flock back to movie theaters.

“A movie theater is a social experience,” he says, “and I think that will always have value.”

Small theaters have smaller bills compared to large chains, he says. Support from residents, the landlord cutting some slack, and loan forgiveness from the city and state have helped their theaters stay afloat.

For Cusack, Warner Brothers’ announcement reflects the “obvious direction” the industry is headed in with streaming services as major players.

The Charles and The Senator were built in 1939 and help comprise the “cultural fabric of the city” of Baltimore, Lyons says. But the theaters are suffering during the pandemic alongside countless other small businesses, from long-standing institutions to the newest trendy restaurants.

“For those that can’t make it through, it just really changes the landscape of the city in so many very sad ways,” she says. “It’s character. It’s what makes it interesting. And it’s what makes it a great place to live.”

Alexander Tuerk produced and edited this story for broadcast with Chris BentleyAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on

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