Can you name the first concert you went to? Can you name the last concert you went to before the pandemic hit?
Most of us have fond memories of listening to music live and in person, whether at a classical music concert or a rock show. It’s the sea of humanity, the intimacy of the musician on stage, the dancing and singing your heart out—all things that are, unfortunately, not COVID-safe.
Managers and owners of live music venues are still trying to figure out what to do.
State Theatre in Falls Church gave free concerts in its parking lot for most of 2020 and continues to in 2021.
Wolf Trap—whose outdoor summer season of concerts are a mainstay for many Northern Virginians—pivoted to mostly virtual content last summer and has not announced a concrete plan to get patrons back on its iconic lawn.
Jiffy Lube Live, which is under the Live Nation umbrella, has announced the outdoor venue hopes to host concerts this summer in alignment with CDC guidelines, according to a recent statement from Joe Berchtold, president of Live Nation Entertainment.
The Birchmere in Alexandria closed in mid-March and reopened in mid-July, reportedly canceling 90 to 100 shows and refunding $300,000 in ticket sales. The venue added a COVID fee to pay for disinfectants and masks; requires a minimum purchase; has limited audience size to 200, which is about 40 percent of capacity; and now ends shows at 9 p.m. All patrons are required to have their temperature taken before entry.
The Hylton Performing Arts Center on the George Mason University campus in Manassas closed in March 2020. Rick Davis, executive director of the center, says that they will be transitioning this March to a hybrid live production presentation—some at home and some online. “There is still a lot of reluctance to go back into a closed theater,” Davis says. “It turns out that there is a surprising number of people who don’t want to come back until herd immunity happens. They don’t want to wear masks or do social distancing. But we want to bring back people sooner than that.”
In December, the center hosted the Manassas Ballet Theatre performing The Nutcracker with a small live audience of 75 people in the 1,200-seat venue, where they practiced strict social distancing, reductions in the number of people on stage and plexiglass shields between performers and production staff. “That turned out to be a successful experiment,” Davis says.
The No. 1 thing that they are working on now is modeling the airflow using smoke tests and figuring out how often air is exchanged. “This will help us determine the maximum load of [the] audience and how many performers can be on stage.” Davis says that once they complete that process, it will be a selling point for the venue.
In its current fiscal year, during which there have been no performances, the Center for the Arts will lose around $2 million, which represents a 75 percent to 80 percent loss. They are doing adjustments in bookings now that were canceled last year, beginning in March 2020. “A lot of the artists you thought you might have seen in the previous season we plan to bring back next season.” They have a three-year plan to recover starting next fall, Davis says.
“The arts create community. We are about bringing people together. I love the idea of an audience ‘conspiring,’ where hundreds of people have randomly decided to come together to watch this play or this presentation” Davis says. “They become a temporary community. And I think that is a socially essential thing. We are feeling the absence of it in the world and need to get back to it.”
Artists may not be on many stages now before a large audience, but Robert Moran, the futurist, says the pandemic can be a time of rebirth for the arts community.
“We should expect to be surprised by new art forms, new ideas, maybe even new startups,” he says. “People have had so much time for introspection, to think more intentionally.”
As the pandemic spring turned into the pandemic summer, movie buffs watched as highly anticipated summer blockbusters got delayed again and again. Many were finally released onto streaming services, but the moviegoing experience was put on hold as theaters were deemed unsafe.
All of the theaters belonging to Regal Cinemas, a large nationwide movie theater chain, in the U.S.—including 29 in Virginia—remained closed as of press time.
The AMC 16 at Tysons Corner struggled with reopening for months and then introduced the AMC “Safe and Clear” program as they reopened in late August, which called for reducing touch points inside the theater at the concession, reducing auditorium capacity to allow for social distancing, making hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes available and requiring masks unless eating or drinking.
AMC workers disinfect each auditorium between movies with electrostatic disinfectant sprayers. The company upgraded its HVAC system with better air filters.
AMC is trying other ways of getting customers in seats safely. In November, the company introduced a theater rental concept for groups of up to 20 people with no minimum food or drink order, with prices ranging from $149 to $349. Over 110,000 people jumped at the opportunity.
National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), the largest exhibition trade organization in the world, which represents more than 35,000 movie screens in all 50 states and is headquartered in DC, estimated that 70 percent of midsize and smaller movie theaters in the country could file for bankruptcy or close permanently within months. The U.S. government responded with $15 billion in grants to movie theaters, live entertainment venues, live theaters and museums as part of the COVID relief package passed in December.
NATO developed CinemaSafe, a volunteer program with certain CDC-based protocols, including mask-wearing even if the state doesn’t require it and training staff on how to enforce it. “Only about half of the screens are opened in the U.S. now,” Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer for NATO, says. “With the closures in place, we don’t have a lot of new titles available.”
He says that they are not going back to business as usual until vaccines have taken hold. The idea of private rentals, as they are doing at AMC, is one way that movie theaters are dealing with the pandemic, and he says that that idea probably will likely fade away once everything gets back to normal.
“It’s not just movie theaters, but studios as well are worried. They suffered enormous losses.” In 2020, movie theater revenue was only about $2.3 billion, and most of that, or about $1.8 billion, came in the first quarter. As a comparison, in 2019, the movie theater industry made about $11.4 billion. “About 80% of revenue was gone through no fault of our own,” Corcoran says.
Streaming has become the de facto way of seeing a movie. But per-customer revenue from streaming is not nearly the same as per-customer revenue from theatergoers, he says. “In theatrical, a studio can get almost $1 billion in profit on their investment on a single title, which is simply not possible in streaming.”
After the Pandemic
- What will change: Releasing movies on streaming services is likely here to stay. In movie theaters, concert venues and other entertainment spaces, safety precautions like air filtrations systems will be a selling point.
- What will return to normal: Live entertainment and movie releases on the big screen will return once there’s herd immunity.