LIHU‘E — The owner of Kauai’s only full-time movie theater, Kukui Grove Cinema 4, said Saturday the facility will close permanently Tuesday, apparently the victim of the COVID-19 crisis and the changing nature of the movie business and people’s viewing habits.
“We are closing as a theater, yes,” said Marlene Blair, who has owned Kukui Grove Cinema for 35 years. “The theater is not going to be open as a theater.” She did not say how the theater complex in Lihu‘e could be repurposed.
Blair’s comments came in response to questions about several statements on the theater’s website. The entries said “Closed Tuesday, March 31, at 6:30 p.m. for the last time,” “the plug has been pulled on us,” and “right now, I’m trying to grasp the reality that, after 35 years, just like that, poof, it’s over.”
Blair said the closure had been precipitated by actions taken by Kaua‘i County, but, pressed on what the actions were, she identified Mayor Derek Kawakami’s March 21 emergency COVID-19 order. It mandates shutdowns of all “theaters, entertainment centers and visitor attractions” as part of the county’s effort to limit the spread of the virus.
A county spokesperson said she was unaware of any specific county action pertaining to Kukui Grove Cinema 4 other than the March 21 shutdown order, which applies countywide.
For more than a week, according to its website, Kukui Grove Cinema 4 has tried to keep its concession stand open, selling candy, drinks and other items. Other theaters across the country have done the same thing.
A Los Angeles Times story reported that the owner of the six-screen Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax, Virginia, had switched to concession sales only in an attempt to keep as many of his employees working as he could.
Movie theaters across the country have closed temporarily by the thousands in the last three weeks, and a national trade group that represents them tried without success to get the motion-picture-exhibition industry included specifically in the massive federal bail-out bill signed into law by President Donald Trump on Thursday.
However, the Hollywood Reporter, a trade publication, noted on Wednesday that movie theaters appear to qualify for U.S. Small Business Administration loans included in the stimulus bill, which has a projected total size of nearly $4.2 trillion. The bill earmarks $454 billion in immediate funding for loan guarantees to help businesses whose revenue streams have dried up because of the COVID-19 crisis.
In two brief phone interviews, Kukui Grove Cinema 4’s Blair said her decision to go out of business came after she concluded the theater faced possible bankruptcy.
The trade group, the National Association of Theatre Owners, sought government loan guarantees, tax benefits and federal money to offset lost ticket and concession sales. The association’s CEO, John Fithian, was quoted on the MarketWatch business website as saying the nation’s theater industry is “uniquely vulnerable” during the COVID-19 crisis.
Industry observers have warned that many theaters — particularly small, locally owned operations — would be unable to survive. NATO represents operators of 33,000 screens in all 50 states, with a total of about 150,000 employees.
Kukui Grove Cinema 4 has suffered from weak attendance for several years. Blair said that, like many small operations in the exhibition trade, her theater had been having trouble competing with increasing use of video streaming services like Netflix and Amazon.
At one time, Kaua‘i had more than a dozen movie theaters, many of which were built by sugar plantations for use by employees and their families and friends. A 2015 profile in The Garden Island of the island’s theater industry noted that, at one time, there were theaters in Kekaha, Waimea, Koloa, Kealia, Kapa‘a, Lihu‘e, Kalaheo and Hanapepe.
Several of the original theater buildings — especially in Kilauea and Hanapepe — can still be seen. The historic Waimea Theatre is still in operation, showing movies mostly on weekends. It originally opened in 1938, but closed in 1972 and was converted into warehouse space, according to the Cinema Treasures website. The Waimea Theatre reopened in 1999 as a motion-picture exhibitor and community-performance and meeting space.
In recent years, the industry has been dominated by large national chains, like AMC Entertainment, Regal Entertainment and Cinemark Theaters. Strictly local theater operators, especially those like Kukui Grove Cinema 4, with just one property, have become increasingly rare.
Allan Parachini is a Kilauea resident, furniture-maker, journalist and retired public relations executive who writes periodically for The Garden Island.