Farmington Civic Theater General Manager Scott Freeman stands behind the concessions stand counter. Hand sanitizer and barcode/QR code scanners sit atop the counter to provide patrons a touchless experience.

Farmington Civic Theater General Manager Scott Freeman stands behind the concessions stand counter. Hand sanitizer and barcode/QR code scanners sit atop the counter to provide patrons a touchless experience.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Farmington-area theaters work to adapt amid new guidelines

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published November 10, 2020

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FARMINGTON/HILLS — It’s been a hard knock life for entertainment establishments across the state ever since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shuttered their operations March 16 in response to COVID-19, but with the recent green light to reopen, local theaters said they are ready to bounce back.

Whitmer signed Executive Order 2020-183 enabling movie theaters and performance venues across the state to reopen Oct. 9 with certain capacity and health safety restrictions.

For Farmington Civic Theater General Manager Scott Freeman, that means he’s finally able to welcome cinephiles back in for a movie on the big screen. Farmington Players Barn President Jason Wilhoite isn’t quite ready to bring patrons back into the building yet, but the theater has a few other ideas up its sleeve, he said.

 

A slower than anticipated start
Since reopening, Freeman said, his theater has seen a slower than anticipated return of patrons, but he doesn’t believe that’s for lack of appetite.

“I think there’s no shortage of people that want to go out and see a movie, it’s just that the movies we have the opportunity to show right now are smaller. They’re good, but they’re smaller,” he said. “We did start out slower than anticipated, but slowly and surely each of the three weeks … the trend is up. I think that will continue as we move forward, and as bigger movies get released. I’m crossing all my fingers.”

Low attendance may not just be limited by the movie selection either. The theater, while now open, is still restricted in its available capacity. It must adhere to 20% capacity, which only leaves Freeman with 26 seats for the upstairs theater and 54 seats for downstairs. His highest attendance at one show, he said, has been 20 people.

Patrons who attend the theater may notice a variety of other health safety features Freeman has implemented to cooperate with health safety guidelines. Counter-mounted card readers, barcode readers and hand sanitizer have been placed at the box office and concessions stand to facilitate touch-free experiences for customers. Patrons can now also purchase tickets online or through the theater’s new mobile app, and for the first time in the theater’s 80-year history, it now accepts credit cards.

Signage demarcating social distancing requirements have been buffed up with out-of-the-box messaging, like short movie quotes and theater announcements.

“I hate beating a dead horse. Everyone knows what red dots on the floor means, so I tried to be a little cuter with it,” Freeman said.

 

Alternative revenues for uncertain times
The Farmington Players Barn may not be putting on an onstage performance for patrons anytime soon, but that hasn’t stopped Wilhoite and company from finding alternative ways to interact with audience members and maybe make a couple of bucks too.

The Farmington Players have introduced a new offering in the form of an audio theater, which Wilhoite explained will essentially take on a podcast-like format. The audio theater will be a series of one-act plays, and possibly down the road longer, more episodic offerings. The theater released its first audio production Oct. 31, available through the theater’s website, on YouTube, and/or other streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

“It’s been a really exciting, new creative outlet for the group … and unlike any of the other things I’ve seen other groups doing,” he said. “We wanted to show not only to our membership, but to our patronage that we’re still here. We’re still working to help bring some artistic creativity to the community and also some escapism from everything that’s going on.”

The audio theater is likely to stick around even beyond the pandemic, Wilhoite said, as another avenue to interact with their current subscribers and possibly attract more, on a larger global scale. Get enough subscribers, and that could open up the possibility of partnering with advertisers and earning some revenue from the audio theater.

Wilhoite is also thinking about other ways to fundraise for the theater without just asking patrons for donations. He said the theater may create a 2021 calendar that patrons could receive for a donation.

At the Farmington Civic Theater, Freeman has been working on establishing some alternative revenue streams. He said that while the theater may not jump as quickly back into hosting concerts, because those may not work with the capacity limitations, he’s had some luck in renting out the theaters for events such as weddings.

The theater received a $64,000 loan from the city’s general fund balance, approved by City Council Oct. 19, to help the theater get back on its feet after its fund balance dried up in August. The loan stipulates it must be paid back over three years, with a 1% interest rate.

“I tell people we probably lost about $150,000 over that time period (since closing). We probably took in $6,000 for popcorn sales, and it certainly doesn’t recapture all the lost revenue, but with the loan it’s helpful in that we can continue doing the operations as attendance continues to build.”

City Manager David Murphy said he chose the $64,000 total because he estimates that will help the theater stay funded until the end of the next fiscal year, June 2021. “I do think this should be enough, but we’ll see. If there’s an emergency there, (like) emergency repairs, they might go through that a little quicker,” he said.

 

Optimistic about the outcome
Despite the challenges Freeman and Wilhoite have had to face over the last several months, both are optimistic their theaters will withstand the harsh realities of the pandemic and come out on top.

“We know this is going to be longer. I think that my level of worry is higher… but I also feel confident that we can overcome this as an organization,” Wilhoite said. “Anything can change. There could be a moment that happens that this (pandemic) changes more quickly than we think, and that would be great. We’ll be ready for that.”

Wilhoite believes it may be closer to fall 2022 before the Farmington Players are able to return to “a normal way of operating.”

Freeman continues to draw on his knowledge and experience as the theater’s general manager for the last 10 years.

“I never say never; however, I’m confident in that from my last 10 years here, I see a lot of embracing, caring and wanting to protect what many people think is an area icon; something that’s been around for 80 years now,” he said. “I think as we come out of this, people will want to get back to their normal entertainment. I think it’s probably going to be slower than we’d like to see it, but I think we will survive.”

For more information, visit thefct.com and farmingtonplayers.org.

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