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Ashland Street Cinema closes for good

Ashland Street Cinema has closed its doors for good.

One of 19 theaters operated in four states by Coming Attractions Theatres, the Cinema’s lease was up and not renewed.

All of CAT’s theaters are closed except for the two in Alaska, one in Wasilla and another in Kenai.

CAT President and Chief Operating Officer Al Lane says he had hoped new Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) money would support continued rent on the space.

“Congress just passed a relief package,” he said, “a second PPP round with support for shuttered venues.”

“We were in on the first round of PPP,” Lane said. “That allowed us to bring people back to help us get ready for our eventual reopening. It was really like unemployment compensation for our employees.”

Owner John Schweiger said crews have been removing screens and equipment from the Ashland Street Cinema and will be finished this week.

The multiplex had six screens and related equipment.

“The total value of equipment in each auditorium ranged from $125,000 to $150,000,” Schweiger said.

Lane said some of the equipment is being transferred to other theaters in the chain, some may be sold, and the rest will be stored for future use.

The Varsity will reopen when theaters get the green light from the state. CAT is the owner of the Varsity building.

The Varsity also is the home of the Ashland Independent Film Festival.

“We hope we can move forward with that,” Schweiger said.

Schweiger was one of four owners of the Los Angeles-based National Business Brokers company before he relocated to Ashland and bought the Varsity Theatre in 1985. After renovating and operating the Varsity, he began acquiring and building theaters in other small to medium markets.

At one point during the pandemic, CAT was given the go-ahead to open theaters on the coast, but a few days before opening the company was told it couldn’t operate the snack bars. Since snack bars are a major profit center in theaters, that killed the opening.

Both Schweiger and Lane believe movie theaters will be back stronger than ever when COVID is controlled.

People have been predicting the demise of movie theaters for a long time.

First it was the advent of television. Then it was video cassettes, DVDs, piracy, Blockbuster franchises, the habits of young people, streaming services, and now COVID-19.

However, despite ups and downs, movie theaters and the film industry have stayed strong. And streaming may not turn out to be the killer of theaters it’s predicted to be.

Lane says people like to enjoy a film with a crowd, experiencing the energy of the house, watching a movie on a big screen with a massive speaker system.

“And the trouble with video on demand is there are so many platforms,” he said. Rather than subscribe to a lot of streaming services, people can go to the theater and pay for just what they want to see, he said.

Streaming may not be in the studios’ interest either in the long run.

“When ‘Mulan’ was released on the Disney channel, it grossed only $35 million on the opening weekend,” Lane said. “Compare that to a typical blockbuster opening weekend in theaters of $100 million.”

One reason Lane believes movie goers will come flocking back to theaters when COVID is over is that Hollywood is building an inventory of a lot of product.

“There will be a bunch of great new movies for people to see,” he said.

Lane says he realizes reopening — and how well it goes — depends on several elements.

“First, the COVID rate has to come down and the government has to decide on when and how it wants business to reopen,” he said. “Second, consumer confidence will be a big factor. And finally, a lot depends on when film studios are willing to release product.”

Meanwhile, CAT has furloughed most of its employees, operates with a skeleton staff, and suffers as do most businesses during the pandemic.

“But we will be back,” Lane said.

And so will 50-foot screens, super-sized boxes of Junior Mints, and one-gallon tubs of buttered popcorn.

Correction: This article has been updated to show that Ashland Street Cinema is closed after its owners decided not to renew its lease.

Crews have been removing screens and equipment from the Ashland Street Cinema and will be finished this week.The multiplex had six screens and related equipment. (Jim Flint photo)