River Cinema recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic as Americans return to the movies

Penny Stai and River Cinema, now 16 months from the original lockdown, are finally getting to bask in the success of summer movies after a year without them.

Penny Stai manages River Cinema 15 in East Grand Forks. Photo by Bonnie Meibers/Grand Forks Herald
Penny Stai manages River Cinema 15 in East Grand Forks. Bonnie Meibers/Grand Forks Herald

Penny Stai worked at River Cinema for 12 years before she and her brother bought it from their parents on Jan. 2, 2020, and nothing has been the same since then.

When the COVID-19 lockdowns began in March 2020, movie studios began delaying their yearly plethora of films, and the movie industry was turned on its head. An entire summer slate of films, featuring the latest offerings from the Fast and Furious franchise, the DC Extended Universe, Pixar and even a Broadway musical adaptation, were all chucked into a tailspin.

In April 2020, the first full month of quarantine, there were four blockbuster films slated to release each weekend. All of them were delayed except for Trolls World Tour, which opted for a straight-to-on-demand release. Of the other three, two of them have now been released, and one of those films -- the final Daniel Craig-headlined James Bond film No Time to Die -- opens in Nov. 19, months after its original release date. The effects of these delays are still echoing throughout the industry more than a year later, and that echo will not die out any time soon.

Now, with Americans returning to the movies and studios executives sticking their heads out of their shells to see if money can be made again, locally-owned movie theaters are slowly returning to form.

Stai and River Cinema, now 16 months from the original lockdown, are finally getting to bask in the success of summer movies after a year without them.


“The busiest month of the year is July, and so it was it was very hard,” Stai said. “We are a multiplex, which means we have to have at least two movies a week coming out that are recognizable, and we would have one a month or two a month at the most (last year). With a multiplex you need multiple movies to stay open, so it was it was hard.”

River Cinema was closed from March 17 to June 18, 2020, and a state mandate forced it to close from Nov. 21 to Jan. 14, 2021. In between, the theater operated with screenings of class movies such as Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Arc and The Goonies to draw in as many customers as possible. Each old movie played at the theater had to be licensed, so the process involved coordinating with a booking agent and ordering them. Stai said a saving grace of the process was that it was cheaper to play old movies during the pandemic than any other time before.

“They were running some specials, so they were a lot cheaper,” Stai said. “It’s hit and miss, but our customers have a soft spot for the classics. They like them, but it’s not enough to sustain (business). We were not making money. We were losing money every single month, but at least we could pay the bills.”

Stai was able to keep her employees busy the first three months of the pandemic. The staff helped replace flooring, repaint parts of the building and other general maintenance work. Aside from that, the theater was open on the weekends for customers to purchase movie snacks, such as popcorn and candy, to take home.

However, the second lockdown proved to be a more precarious situation. By that point, Stai was running out of things to give her staff to do.

“We did have to put them on unemployment (then),” Stai said. “We just didn’t know how long it was going to last that time. They have all come back. The majority of our staff that was here before the pandemic is still here.”

Then, 18 months after promotional materials began seeping out into the public, Black Widow came to theaters on July 9 to $80.3 million in domestic earnings in its opening weekend, the most of any movie since the pandemic began, despite simultaneously being available for streaming on Disney+.

“It’s so nice to see families back out, and high school and college kids back out at the theater,” Stai said. “So many people are so excited to come out of the house and watch it with other people. It’s a community experience.”


When asked about whether or not same-day streaming for blockbuster movies will be a fad of the pandemic era or have a long-lasting impact on the movie theater business, Stai said she isn’t worried.

“Our family has been in this business for 40 years,” Stai said. “We’ve seen VCRs, DVDs (and) Netflix start… Lots of platforms have evolved the entire time we’ve been in this business. So streaming, yes it will affect our business, but you can also get groceries and eat at home. Why do you go to a restaurant? Why do you eat out? It’s because you want to leave the house and go somewhere. It’s special.”

Jacob Holley joined the Grand Forks Herald as its business reporter in June 2021.

Holley's beat at the Grand Forks Herald is broad and includes a variety of topics, including small business, national trends and more.

Readers can reach Holley at him on Twitter @JakeHolleyMedia.
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