Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: Three L.A. Indie Theater Workers Talk Furloughs, Weigh “Catastrophic” Threat To Future Of Moviegoing

Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: Three L.A. Indie Theater Workers Talk Furloughs, Weigh “Catastrophic” Threat To Future Of Moviegoing

Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that already has claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email [email protected].

Among the movie theaters shut down due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the independents are surely the most vulnerable. With screens dark indefinitely, those exhibitors that were already struggling financially may not be able to hold on.


Coronavirus In Los Angeles County: Record 11 Deaths In Past 24 Hours; 513 New Cases Reported In Region - Update

Then, there are the hundreds of theater workers—many of whom live from paycheck to paycheck—who are now out of work, with no sense of when doors will open again. If communal anxiety about the current state of affairs is high, concerns about the future are proving even as significant, with laid off or furloughed employees wondering not only how they’ll pay their bills but also about the impact the shutdowns will have on the Los Angeles film institutions they love.


On the condition of anonymity, three Los Angeles theater workers spoke with Deadline to share the stories of their struggles, and their concerns for the world after coronavirus.


Landmark’s Regent Theatre


In the days leading up to the shutdowns, one assistant manager at Landmark’s Regent Theatre could feel a bit of anxiety in the air. Like most of the city’s denizens—and most concerned theater workers—the theater was well attuned to the news surrounding the growing pandemic as it unfolded, doing all they could to keep their doors open, while practicing social distancing and offering hand sanitizer to customers.


But no one could have foreseen the rapid speed with which theaters in the city would shut down.


“It was kind of business as usual, with people just paying extra attention to washing their hands and whatnot,” the assistant manager says. “But I don’t think people really realized the magnitude of it, including myself, until probably a few days leading up to the weekend when they shut it down.”

A 38-year-old who has worked for a number of Landmark branches since 2011—and various theaters prior to that—he heard about the theater shutdowns on the news, before corporate had a chance to speak with staff.


Once the branch manager contacted corporate, he was met with the same kind of message sent to many theater workers across the Greater Los Angeles area. “My manager told me that once this is all over, everything should just be back to normal, and nobody was getting fired. They told us they’d keep us posted on stuff that was happening,” the employee said. “I haven’t heard any new updates, but I know how things are going right now.”


While the prospect of returning to work once the pandemic is contained may be reassuring to some, no information had been provided to the employee by press time, regarding government relief for theater workers. Ultimately, though, The National Association of Theater Owners expects that the $2 trillion stimulus bill, recently passed by Congress and signed by President Trump, will provide some relief to theater workers, as well as the theaters themselves.


In the mean time, the assistant manager has signed up for unemployment, with the additional income from his girlfriend working in tech helping the situation somewhat. Like so many others, he has also contemplated other jobs he could take on should the shutdowns remain in place for months. “If worst comes to worst financially, I could probably just do food deliveries,” he says. “It’s not a whole lot of money, but it would probably help me a bit.”


Laemmle’s Playhouse 7


Like many theater employees in Los Angeles, an assistant manager of the Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 is an artist, whose day job allows her the freedom to engage in other pursuits. “I’ve worked at Laemmle for almost eight years, and working there has allowed me to live the life of a musician,” the 29-year-old says. “Even though I scrape by and maybe live paycheck to paycheck, I’m still able to make my own schedule, pretty much, and live the life that I want to live.”


In the days leading up to March 15, when Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the temporary closure of movie theaters, Laemmle’s was experiencing a decline in business, as most theaters were—though strangely, some of the people most susceptible to the coronavirus were still showing up. “Most of our clientele are people over the age of 60; the daily regulars are senior citizens. Some of those regulars were still coming, and it was like, ‘Oh, gosh. I feel like we should close, because they’re just going to keep coming and jeopardize their health,’” the assistant manager says. “We had a lot of anxiety about working there, and maybe being exposed to it, but mostly concerned about spreading it to the older customers.”


On the morning of March 16, employees at the Playhouse received an email informing them they were all on furlough indefinitely. If the pandemic were to extend past March 31, all theater staff would be laid off. “They were just like, ‘Obviously, this situation is constantly evolving, by the hour’—and now, we know that our theater isn’t going to be open until at least May, if we’re lucky,” the assistant manager says. “But it might extend beyond that.”


For her, the idea of being out of work indefinitely is nerve-wracking. “Because I got my tax return a month or two ago, I don’t have to worry about living paycheck to paycheck. But I’m still expected to pay rent,” she says. “So, once I run out of the smallest nest egg that I have, I will be in trouble.”


Like many hourly employees who have found themselves abruptly out of work, she has now been faced with a dilemma: Do I stay, or do I go? “I don’t know whether or not I should stick around and wait for if and when our theater would reopen, or if I should just try to start working at a grocery store now,” she says. “Because if it ends up being July, I’m not going to have any money left.”


“Even if we were able to reopen, I just don’t know, financially, what position [Laemmle is] in, and what kind of hours I would get,” she adds. “I’m sure they’re going to want to operate with bare minimum staff, and I feel like business will be bad, because people will be afraid to go to the movies.”


While her personal fears are always at top of mind, she’s also concerned about the effect the business shutdowns may have on vital cultural spaces that may have been struggling prior to the pandemic. “This is a temporary situation, but it’s going to have long-lasting effects, and when theaters do reopen, it’s going to be really important for people to support those theaters, especially independent institutions like Laemmle’s, which are so important to the city of Los Angeles. Because if people don’t get out there and support them, then what if they have to sell again? Or we just won’t have places like that anymore, that are so important to the culture?” she says. “That makes me really sad.”

TCL Chinese Theatre


Like the assistant manager at Laemmle’s, a long-time tour guide at the TCL Chinese Theatre relies on his income to pursue artistic pursuits—in this case, as an actor. With more than two dozen credits in an almost 30-year screen career, he has been “hustling [his] way through” on the side, while engaging with people from all over the world at one of Hollywood’s oldest and most iconic theatres.


Working on Hollywood Boulevard, the UK native was uniquely positioned to witness the impact coronavirus fears, and the ensuing business shutdowns, would have on Hollywood at large. “We did see a massive decline [in attendance], in the weeks leading up [to the shutdowns], because obviously it’s a tourist spot. I mean, this time of year should be the busiest, really,” he says. “Spring break is the busiest season for us, not just for tour guides, but just in that area in Hollywood.”


As an employee of the Chinese Theatre often on site early in the morning ahead of the tourist rush, the tour guide wasn’t all too shocked to see the Hollywood institution suddenly empty. But the opening of one recent film left an impression on him: The Vin Diesel-starring mid-budget sci-fi actioner Bloodshot was one of the last films to hit theaters before the shutdowns, with the misfortune of a March 13 release. “Ordinarily, a movie like that, especially on an opening night, would be doing a few hundred people,” he says. “I think [that night], there was maybe seven, eight.”


Like the theater workers, the tour guide is now on furlough, the difference being that he has a family for which to provide. “It’s pretty terrifying, I’m not going to lie to you,” he says, noting that he is lucky to have a support network, when many others do not.


“A lot of my colleagues, they’re just kids. They’ve come from all across the country to see what they can do in Hollywood, and I know a lot of them go without eating a lot of the time. At the end of the day, if there’s a few hot dogs left over, that would be their dinner, because we don’t get paid a lot,” he says. “So, this is going to have a big effect on people who are less fortunate than I am, and that’s kind of the scary thing.”


Hoping the local government will do something “to look towards those people and help them out a bit,” the tour guide has contemplated taking on other jobs while waiting for his theatre to reopen. But from his perspective, the situation is a Catch-22. “You want to adhere to the social distancing. You want to keep everybody safe,” he says. “I could potentially, I guess, go out and get a job working in a grocery store and helping out there. But equally, I can’t be putting myself at risk, as well as [my family] and other people.”


Even if he were to commit to pursuing other work, opportunities at the moment seem scarce. While he applied to drive for Uber Eats over two weeks ago, his information and background check have still not been processed. “When I messaged them about it the other day, I got a response saying, ‘We’re inundated with issues at the moment.’ So, that might be put on hold,” he says. “It seems to be I’m not the only one thinking that way. I guess I’m part of the long list of people who are trying to get that sort of work to get through this.”


From his perspective, it seems like the coronavirus shutdowns will have a “catastrophic” impact on the future of moviegoing—compounding the effect that streaming services and VOD have already had on the theatrical business. “Looking ahead personally right now, I love cinema. I would often go to the cinema on my own during the day, [but] I can’t imagine being in a room with any more than my immediate family, watching a movie, and having a guy behind me cough or something,” he says. “It’s going to have knock-on effects like that, I think.”


“Speaking to buddies who are also in the industry, we all firmly believe that entertainment and escapism will be fairy popular after all this, more so than ever,” he adds. “Movie theaters, though, the experience of being in a movie theater, I think, is going to suffer massively.”