Cleveland Cinemas Banking On SBA Funds, Capitol Theatre To Reopen In August

The light from a projector illuminates a theater of empty seats
Variables remain for the comeback of movie theaters. [Fer Gregory / Shutterstock.com]
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Movie theaters are having their own challenges returning from the pandemic. Northeast Ohio’s home-grown movie chain Cleveland Cinemas is banking on federal aid for a comeback.

Cleveland Cinemas traces its roots back to 1977 with the purchase of the Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights. Eleven additional theaters were eventually brought into the Cleveland Cinemas fold across the region. In some cases, Cleveland Cinemas owned the theaters outright. In other cases, the company staffed and programmed the facility for others. Jackie Koral has seen a good deal of that growth over the years.

"I've been with the company since March of 2000 and just risen through the Cleveland Cinema's ranks," she said.

Today, Koral is VP of finance and administration, and she’s seen the impact of an ever-constricting movie market. Cleveland Cinemas is down to four locations, in Chagrin, Cleveland Heights, Oberlin and Cleveland’s Gordon Square. And like many small businesses, Cleveland Cinemas applied for federal help.

"Back in April, we, along with other theater owners in the States, we applied for the federal grant money from the SBA, titled the SVOG," she said.

That's the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, a $16 billion program aimed at helping small independent venues, promoters, movie theaters and other entertainment companies hit hard by the pandemic. The SVOG was passed into law last December, but an overwhelming demand for funds by these struggling businesses has slowed the grantmaking process to a snail’s pace.

"We've heard of a lot of movie theaters not being approved and waiting to find out why so that they can correct those errors and resubmit their applications to the SBA," Koral said. "Unfortunately, we've heard nothing."

Over the past year, Cleveland Cinemas has employed a number of strategies to keep some kind of revenue coming in. From co-sponsoring streaming deals with independent film distributors to offering popcorn and other concessions that film fans could pick up and munch in front of their home screens.

"But there's only so much popcorn you want to consume at home without having the big screen in front of you," she said. "Now, the virtual screening room – that's what we call the streaming service at Cleveland Cinemas – while that had, you know, a bit of income, it was most definitely not something that you can rely on or get by on."

Last August, the Cedar Lee Theatre and Chagrin Cinemas reopened on a limited basis with social distancing and cleaning protocols in place, but there hasn’t been enough product to keep operations economically viable. Major film distributors have held back a number of big movies while waiting for audiences to return in big numbers. Jackie Koral said the recent releases of “In the Heights” and “Quiet Place 2” have helped somewhat.

"With better film out there, we've seen a bump in attendance," she said. "But it's by no means anywhere near what we were doing in 2019."

The Apollo in Oberlin reopened earlier this month after the state lifted its health orders.

Previously-announced financial challenges for the Capitol Theatre in Cleveland were eased somewhat last week, when its owner – the Detroit-Shoreway Community Development Organization – was approved for separate SVOG funds. The theater is due to reopen in August.

Koral said federal funds would keep the Cedar Lee’s lights on and employees paid through next May. Another variable that could affect the local chain's future: If the pandemic has permanently altered people's movie-going habits.

"You know, there's no guarantee that those people are going to want to come back to our theater to view those films," she said.

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