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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Garland Theater owner wonders if historic movie house can survive pandemic, while Hayden Cinemas expand

Local movie theater owners, including Garland Theatre owner Katherine Fritchie, are concerned about the Warner Brothers decision to release movies directly to streaming next year.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Ed Condran The Spokesman-Review

When WarnerMedia announced this week that all of its 2021 films would run on HBO Max at the same time they play in theaters, it was another blow to Garland Theater owner Katherine Fritchie.

“It’s disheartening for sure,” Fritchie said. “It will definitely hurt movie theaters, which are suffering so much right now. I know everyone in Hollywood is suffering, but this is not encouraging news for anyone that owns a theater. ”

A number of highly anticipated WarnerMedia films, such as the Sopranos sequel, “The Many Saints of Newark,” the Richard Williams story, “King Richard” and the adaptation of the “Mortal Kombat” video game will be available on HBO Max.

Actor and former Spokane resident Jeff Mooring, of “West Wing” fame, predicted movie enthusiasts will prefer watching at home with COVID-19 spreading in the community .

“If you have the opportunity to see a movie in a theater next year or watch at home with the pandemic, what will most people do?” Mooring said from his Virginia Beach, Virginia, home. “They’re going to watch in the safety of their home if theaters open next year. There’s little question about that.”

Fritchie, who has owned the Garland since 1999, wonders when movie theaters will greet customers again.

“Theaters might not open until 2022, for all we know,” Fritchie said. “This is so tough personally because I have to feed the theater $5,000 a month with rent and utilities.”

When theaters in Spokane County were allowed to reopen in early autumn, Fritchie decided to keep the Garland, with its capacity of 550, shuttered.

“It didn’t make sense to me to reopen,” Fritchie said. “I knew it would just be for a couple-month window. I would have to order supplies and hire and train people and then shut down not long after we opened. It didn’t seem worth it.”

Some Garland patrons have offered to buy yearlong passes to support the theater, but Fritchie has turned them down.

“I don’t want to take people’s money if we never reopen,” Fritchie said. “I hate to say it, but the reality is that we might not reopen. I know a lot of people who own theaters are chomping at the bit to open up again, but I’m more realistic than most people. This is going to be a long haul. It might be a couple of years before people are inside at an event. That’s our reality, whether we like it or not. It’s frustrating since I wish people would just hunker down for a month and we could put a dent in this thing, but people aren’t doing that. So we’re in the situation we’re in. The news we’re getting with the coronavirus hasn’t been good. The news with Warner isn’t good either.”

The story is a bit different in Idaho. Mike Lehosit, who owns the Hayden Cinemas and Boise’s Overland Park Cinemas, believes so much in the future of movie theaters that he purchased the Sandpoint Cinemas, which had planned to close on Nov. 1.

“If we didn’t feel the way we do, we wouldn’t have taken on the theater in Sandpoint,” Lehosit said. “When it was going out of business, we stepped up and took it over. This is a tough period now, but I believe that people will go to the movie theater for the better cinematic experience. When you watch a movie in a theater, you escape the interruptions of life.”

It helps that Lehosit can operate his Idaho theaters at 40% capacity.

“We’re distancing people by 6 feet,” Lehosit said. “We’re doing all that we can to make things safe. These are crazy times and I get why they (Warner Media) are going to HBO Max. They’re trying to be creative during a very difficult time.”

Lehosit hopes that potential Christmas blockbusters “News of the World,” “Monster Hunter” and “Wonder Woman 1984,” will attract customers who will opt for the theater experience at the end of this year and next.

“We have our fingers crossed, and we’re going to make the best of it,” Lehosit said. “We’re trying to survive and be creative. We’re going to do what we have to do. If I have to make my own movies, I’ll show family vacation movies. People can watch movies at home and in a theater. There’s room for both. It’s like how everybody has a kitchen, but there are still restaurants.”