Mike Lehosit knows better than most that stay-home orders may be a struggle for families trapped together in one house.
He has 10 kids.
“There have been some good things and some bad things,” Lehosit said of the order. “It’s been nice to have the kids at home and to have family dinners. But it’s becoming a real strain.”
Lehosit owns Hayden Discount Cinema. The six-screen indoor theater seats up to 900 people, showing movies a few months after their big-theater release for only $3 a seat.
The theater offers affordable entertainment compared with larger-chain cinemas, which are pricey for families like the Lehosits. A large chunk of his seats are filled by families enjoying kid-friendly fare for an inexpensive night out, Lehosit said.
On top of self-isolation claustrophobia, Lehosit was starting to hurt for cash.
Inspired by fellow members of the Rocky Mountain National Association of Theater Owners, the regional branch of a national industry group, Lehosit started offering curbside popcorn and candy to keep the small theater afloat as he waited out the shutdown.
Then he heard of a theater in Salt Lake City that had converted to a drive-in, reducing social distancing concerns while maintaining some income during its closure. Lehosit said he’d been wanting to start a drive-in theater in Hayden for years, but land costs and permitting made it a struggle. Now, though, the unusual circumstances presented the perfect opportunity to test-drive his dream.
“I checked in with the city, checked with the sheriff’s department, made sure we were good to have a drive-in in the parking lot,” Lehosit said. “Within three hours of getting the green light, we had painting for the screen donated.”
Lehosit said he had been in contact with Panhandle Health District several times since the shutdown to clear events with them and had not encountered any problems.
A local company, Totem Drywall & Paint, volunteered services to paint a patch of the cinema’s wall white to serve as the screen. Finding an FM radio transmitter to broadcast the movie’s sound was a challenge, Lehosit said, because churches snapped most of them up for distance services. But a Facebook post from the cinema helped secure two donated transmitters, from a local church and a home theater store.
After a test screening for his employees, Lehosit was ready to open the parking lot for up to 30 vehicles, charging $10 a carload for a screening of the 1981 classic “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” a childhood favorite of his.
A rainy forecast for Thursday night worried him, so Lehosit decided the first weekend would be by donation only.
“You can donate after the movie when you leave,” a post on the theater’s Facebook page read. “We are still in the trial state and do not want to take your money if there are issues.”
Despite the weather, reservations for that first screening sold out rapidly. The screening was a massive success, Lehosit said, averaging a $10 donation per car. Friday night’s screening sold out within 15 minutes – even overselling eight extra spaces due to a glitch on the theater’s new ticketing site, a kink Lehosit said will be worked out by Saturday night’s showing.
Lehosit said he tried to get his 15 part-time employees, mostly local high school kids temporarily laid off during the closure, to return to help out with the drive-in showings. But parents were hesitant to let their kids go back to work, despite Lehosit’s efforts to maintain social distancing.
So the Lehosit children, ages 7 to 25, donned masks and gloves to direct cars to optimal viewing spots and deliver concessions to car windows. Only the youngest, age 3, sat it out. Even the older kids no longer living at home pitched in remotely by fielding technological and logistical issues, Lehosit said.
If the screenings this weekend continue to be successful, Lehosit said he hopes to show outdoor movies up to seven days a week until things can return to normal.
But normal could come much later for Hayden Discount Cinema. Hollywood won’t be churning out new releases until the end of July, Lehosit said, and as a discount theater he won’t get those movies until a month or two after they come out. Lehosit is looking at August or September as the earliest time his operations could return to normal.
Drive-in “showings can probably get us through until then – it’s not a lot, but it’s better than nothing,” Lehosit said. “I think we could probably charge more than $10 a pop if we wanted to. But we want it to be affordable for everyone. Most of the time people come in from the homeless shelter to guys living in million-dollar houses out on the lake, and they should all be able to make it.”
Lehosit is, like nearly every other small-business owner in his area, among those struggling. With his large family, he’s planned ahead for a financial crisis like this one. But he wasn’t expecting to have to pay rent and other expenses for his theater on top of being closed.
He secured a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal loan program for businesses affected by the pandemic, but 75 percent of that money went toward paying his laid-off employees. Lehosit was left with only one month’s rent.
Other small theaters are faring no better. Steve Wisner, owner of the Auto-Vue drive-in near Colville, said the theater’s traditional opening date of May 1 will be delayed due to the pandemic.
Wisner also owns the Alpine Theatre, a traditional indoor theater in downtown Colville, which will remain closed under Washington’s stay-home order for the foreseeable future.
The Auto-Vue’s finances were in the black immediately before the crisis, unlike many years in recent memory, Wisner said, so he would be able to manage through April. But the future was less certain. Located several miles from the nearest town, Auto-Vue can’t offer concessions in the meantime like other theaters can. He’ll simply have to wait it out, Wisner said.
“If we aren’t able to open soon, though, May is going to be a very, very bad month for me,” Wisner said.
Lehosit said that despite the current downturn, he’s optimistic Hayden Discount Cinema will survive. Before the drive-in, when the theater offered curbside concessions, he had expected maybe 30 cars would show up. More than 100 did – some of whom paid for a bucket of popcorn with a $100 bill and said to keep the change.
“I’ve been almost in tears many times throughout this whole thing at all the community support we see,” Lehosit said. “I grew up in a small town, and I love the small-town feeling. We aren’t a big chain backed by foreign investors. We are a local mom and pop just trying to survive. But we always have that feeling of support.”
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