LAWTON — The COVID-19 pandemic upended many industries, including the film industry.
Movie theaters closed their doors temporarily, and new releases were postponed due to COVID-related production delays. And even when theaters reopened, some audiences were slow to return.
The domestic box office generated billions of dollars in 2022, but the movie theater industry has still not returned to pre-pandemic revenues, according to the business intelligence firm Morning Consult. The company said the box office was expected to end the year with an estimated $7.5 billion and could generate about $8.6 billion next year – but those numbers were still 25% lower than an average of the last three years before the pandemic.
But despite those challenges, the Vaska Theatre in Lawton continues to attract audiences.
When Vaska owner Justin Hackney took over the theater in 2015, his vision included hosting more live performances and showing first-run movies, he said in a Dec. 21 interview. But he was not able to show new releases at first because he was competing against Lawton’s other theaters.
That changed with the pandemic, which prompted large movie-theater chains to shut down operations for several months. That included AMC, which owns the AMC Classic Patriot 13 multiplex in Lawton.
The Vaska was closed for about a month and a half before it reopened for business, Hackney said.
“We were the only theater in town at the time, so I pushed the film companies into us becoming first run,” Hackney said. “Which at the time, there weren’t a lot of movies coming out due to COVID. They were backing a lot of the dates up.
“But even once the Patriot reopened, we were able to remain first run. That’s made all the difference.”
The Vaska generated about $60,000 per year as an intermediate theater – a venue which shows movies that have finished their initial theatrical run, Hackney said. But that number climbed to about $380,000 a year after the theater began showing new releases in early 2021.
Hackney said his theater is still drawing audiences, even though the Patriot 13 has reopened.
“Our crowd continues to grow,” he said.
The Vaska hosted live performances on its stage a long time ago, but it discontinued them long before Hackney took it over, he said. Part of his vision for the theater was opening it up to live entertainment again.
“You’ve got to be versatile,” he said. “Especially, like I said, since we couldn’t go first run, we had to do something.”
The Vaska’s live offerings include concerts, comedy and shadow-cast shows, in which an amateur cast acts out a movie while it is playing on screen.
First-run movies are still the Vaska’s bread and butter, but audiences are responding to Hackney’s efforts to diversify programming, he said.
“Some of the events will take off, and some of them fall flat,” he said. “But it’s just to keep things different.”
He added that providing a variety of entertainment may be the key to keeping small movie theaters alive, depending on the community.
“You’ve got to play to what your community will come to,” he said. “And that’s the hard thing about Lawton, is getting them to come to anything.”