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 The marquee at the Farmington Civic Theater displays advertisements for virtual theater showings and to-go popcorn sales while it is closed under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 executive orders.

The marquee at the Farmington Civic Theater displays advertisements for virtual theater showings and to-go popcorn sales while it is closed under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 executive orders.

Photo by Jonathan Shead


Theaters, entertainment remain last to reopen under governor’s plan

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published June 23, 2020

 Theater seats at the Farmington Players Barn sit empty June 11 and will likely continue to sit empty, as the theater has decided to suspend its 2020-2021 season.

Theater seats at the Farmington Players Barn sit empty June 11 and will likely continue to sit empty, as the theater has decided to suspend its 2020-2021 season.

Photo by Jonathan Shead

FARMINGTON/HILLS — While many of Michigan’s economic sectors received the green light to reopen, entertainment establishments across many of Michigan’s regions — with the exception of regions six and eight under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Safe Start Plan — remain in the dark as to when they may be able to reopen.

Some establishments across the greater Farmington area, like the Farmington Civic Theater, are eager and ready to reopen, while the Farmington Players Barn across town has decided to cancel its entire 2020-2021 season.

Theaters and other venues would be able to reopen under phase five of Whitmer’s plan. The Detroit region, which includes Oakland County, is currently in phase four.

“It’s certainly not anything I ever hoped the organization would have to do — to completely have to shut down our facility, our operations, and from a financial standpoint actually sitting down and doing the math on how long we can sustain the building without new income,” Farmington Players President Jason Wilhoite said. “I think the positive side of this is, if it takes a year, we’re going to be able to come back. … I feel strongly that whatever happens, the Farmington Players will come back.”

Farmington Civic Theater General Manager Scott Freeman, who has been making due the last three months by organizing virtual movie screenings online, is eager to return to showing movies on the big screen again.

Freeman said his main goal while shuttered has been to focus on emphasizing promotion through the virtual cinema, creating more social media postings and offering to-go popcorn on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

“The virtual cinema is not a moneymaker by any means. However, I look at it as a way to keep the name of the theater out front and in people’s minds so they remember us when theaters can open back up again,” he said. “We are really looking forward to reopening. It’s amazing how much you miss it when you can’t do it. To fire up those projectors is going to be a wonderful feeling.”

Wilhoite said having to cancel the 2020-2021 season and reimburse the nearly 600 subscriber packages will be a huge financial hit to the theater, on top of some capital improvement plans — renovating the lobby lighting — that were started pre-pandemic and are still going through. Other capital improvements include resurfacing the roof — which was quoted at $100,000 — and there are a few boilers past their prime.

He also had to recently return a check for $20,000 to the city of Farmington Hills, which usually runs its summer theater camps at the theater but won’t be this summer.

Freeman said that, while the theater has had fewer expenses while closed, that is canceled out by the loss of revenue the theater is experiencing.

“I think it’s going to have a big impact on us, but we won’t know exactly until July or August,” he said. The Farmington Civic Theater is owned by the city, whose fiscal year ends June 30.

Still, both are optimistic their theaters can withstand the turbulence caused by the pandemic and make it out the other side. Both have also been working to find creative ways to make up for their losses.

Freeman has continued to show virtual movies since early April and has worked on promoting the theater for its inevitable return, but for Wilhoite, going virtual has been harder to organize. Wilhoite said the Farmington Players have a large catalog of past shows recorded, but issues arise with royalties and rights to stream them.

He’s currently “handcuffed” in that regard, though he said some licensing houses are starting to loosen their restrictions, so streaming a show via YouTube may still be possible later on.

Wilhoite has also floated the idea of presenting smaller, ad-hoc shows with capacity limits closer to December or January, as well as ideas for drive-in theater or small, private shows in a patron’s driveway. He said “everything is on the table.”

As Wilhoite continues to try and find creative ways to provide a bit of theatrical escape for his members and patrons until a possible 2021 return, Freeman is busy trying to prepare the Farmington Civic to reopen with what he feels is little guidance from the state as to when that may actually come.

“As a theater, you can only assume what the guidelines are going to be. We’re assuming the guidelines would be the same as the Upper Peninsula, but we don’t know.”

Freeman said he’s been re-evaluating seating arrangements in the upstairs and downstairs theaters to maximize the number of people allowed with what he anticipates to be a 25% occupancy. The downstairs theater has 273 seats, while the upstairs has 132. He said he’s “ready to reopen no matter what happens.”

Wilhoite, however, would rather wait until his theater can avoid having to do temperature checks or have patrons wear masks — aspects that may make the “whole escape of theater feel very foreign and uncomfortable.”

“I’m very hopeful we’ll be able to present a full season in 2021-2022, but who knows. That remains to be seen,” he said. “Until we’re in a post-pandemic phase, I see our operations being very slow and different, but when we’re in post-pandemic phase six, we’ll be back.”

For more information about the Farmington Civic Theater, visit thefct.com. For more information about the Farmington Players Barn, visit farmingtonplayers.org.