On May 26, when Classic Cinemas reopened its chain of movie houses as Illinois moved into Phase 4 of the governor’s Restore Illinois COVID-19 response plan, one theater that did not reopen was the Lake Theatre, 1022 Lake St. in Oak Park.
Chris Johnson, CEO of Classic Cinemas, said the decision to hold off on opening the Lake was a combination of capacity limiting rules from the state and an ongoing road construction project that has shutdown traffic on the downtown Oak Park commercial strip for months.
And now, with Hollywood continuing to delay the release of new summer films and with less enthusiasm for the older films being screened as a result, there’s no telling when the Lake Theatre will reopen to the movie-watching public.
That’s because all of the chain’s theaters, including the ones in nearby North Riverside, will shut their doors at the end of the business day on July 9.
“Our team took pride in implementing the health and safety protocols and receiving high marks for their efforts,” said Johnson in a press release issued Tuesday. “Unfortunately, the lack of new movies and the extra costs have made our current business model unsustainable.”
The Lake Theatre closed its doors on March 16 due to fears over the COVID-19 pandemic, which was just beginning to spread through the Chicago area.
Reached by phone, Johnson told Wednesday Journal that there’s no tentative reopening date, since it’s unclear just when new movies will be released for screening.
The premiere of the big summer blockbuster “Tenet” has now been pushed all the way back to Aug. 12, while “Mulan” won’t open until at least Aug. 21, Johnson said.
“There are no new releases, because New York and California are two key markets they believe they need open,” Johnson said. “Until those open and are able to show movies, they’re not going to release new movies.”
At the North Riverside Luxury 6, which reopened to the public on June 26 after a three-month layoff due to the pandemic, Johnson said they chose to screen films that either were recently in theaters, like the superhero action film “Bloodshot” or that historically had done well, such as the 2001 hit “The Fast and the Furious” and the 2016 version of “The Jungle Book.”
And while there was a core audience of customers who simply enjoyed going to the show instead of watching films on TV, the recycled movies weren’t attractive enough to draw others who might still have reservations about sitting in a movie theater right now – even with safety protocols in place.
“As nostalgic as our Classic Cinemas name is, our lifeblood is new movies,” Johnson said.
During this latest shutdown, said Johnson, all of the company’s employees will be furloughed, even managers who were not furloughed during the first hiatus that began in March.
The theater chain, which is headquartered in Downers Grove and operates 13 movie houses in northern Illinois and one in Beloit, Wisconsin, did apply for and receive a federal Paycheck Protection Loan of between $1 million and $2 million, according to a database of loan recipients released by the Small Business Administration.
The loan from Hinsdale Bank and Trust was approved on April 6 for the company, which according to the database employs about 470 people.
Classic Cinemas had brought North Riverside Luxury 6 employees back in May when it introduced a concessions-to-go initiative, where customers could pick up popcorn and other movie treats curbside.
But with most retail and food establishments back open for business, it didn’t make sense to continue the to-go program, Johnson said.
“It’s horrible,” said Johnson of the decision to furlough employees again. “We’ve had employees on in North Riverside since May 1. Essentially, we’re mothballing everything and waiting for circumstances to change. I can’t believe how nice the employees have been and how understanding. I feel like I’ve let them down.”
Johnson said the shutdown starting July 10 was only temporary and that once the new movies start circulating, the doors will open again.
“When things start looking better and we have new movies, we’ll be in better shape,” Johnson said. “I’m not ready to throw the towel in just yet.”