Most movie theaters in Arkansas closed in mid-March, around the time the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was announced in the state. The state, despite never meeting the re-opening criteria suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, began Phase One reopening in early May by proclamation of Governor Asa Hutchinson. According to the governor's guidelines, indoor movie theaters were allowed to resume operations on May 18.
Most cinemas in Little Rock are part of national chains, like AMC or Regal, and remained closed in accordance with their company directives. One independently-owned theater, Riverdale 10 in Little Rock, opted to open its doors.
Matt Smith, the owner of Riverdale 10 said, "That eight-week period of time that we were shut down – Intermission 2020 is what I like to call it – that is the longest time in the history of the motion picture industry that movie cinemas have been closed."
Smith says attendance has been low despite reduced ticket prices and social distancing protocols put in place to make sure patrons are seated apart from each other. Under Hutchinson's Phase Two guidelines, indoor theaters are now allowed to operate at two thirds capacity. Cinemas are allowed to seat "family groups" together, otherwise 6 feet of distance must be maintained between patrons. Every other row of seating is required to be empty and face coverings are mandatory.
"We do have customers that are coming out and our employees are certainly happy to be able to go to work, pop the popcorn and show the movies. And so that's a win for us. It's been slow. I think that part of the battle is there's a lot of people that just don't know we're open."
Another reason for low attendance at the few theaters that have reopened may be the lack of new releases. Most movie studios have pushed back release dates for movies like Mulan and Wonder Woman 1984 until later in the summer or early fall. As a result, theaters like Riverdale 10 and the Kenda Drive-In located in Marshall, Arkansas are playing older films. Kenda Dearing, whose parents named the drive-in after her in 1966, says even her outdoor venue is drawing smaller crowds.
"Oh it's off. There’s no question," Dearing said about attendance. "I don’t think it’s the pandemic. I think it's the movies. This weekend would have been the release for Maverick, for the new Top Gun, and there's no way Field of Dreams is going to pull the same number of people Maverick would have pulled."
The drive-in is taking the opportunity presented by a lack of new releases to showcase some rare older movies too. The Legend of Boggy Creek and Bootleggers, both filmed in the state and directed by Arkansas native Charles B. Pierce, are scheduled for a double feature in July. Dearing says even older movies are drawing reasonable crowds to the drive-in because the experience relieves stress.
"That's kind of what we're giving people is the ability to get out and forget about all of this because it's mentally and emotionally exhausting. Just this time is exhausting to people. And I think that's what we're providing to people right now is the sense that we can go do something fun and not have to worry about this for a little while."
The Kenda Drive-In has temporarily stopped issuing the portable speakers usually issued with tickets, but the movies can still be heard through large speakers mounted outside, or through a dedicated FM radio channel.
With the number of COVID-19 cases continuing to surge in Arkansas, it’s unclear what new precautions, if any, will be required of indoor or outdoor theaters in the coming months.