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Milwaukee-based movie theater corporation continues post-pandemic recovery

Changing viewing habits and a movie business in transition bring challenges for theater operators

Marcus Theatres' seating
Marcus Theatres’ seating. Photo courtesy of Marcus Theatres via AP

Milwaukee-based Marcus Corporation is continuing its rebound following the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic that closed its theaters for months and shifted people’s movie-watching habits.

Marcus operates more than 80 theaters spread across 17 states. They also own hotels and restaurants. During a recent appearance on WPR’s “The Morning Show,” the president and chief operating officer of the company said Marcus is still recovering, and looking to diversify its entertainment venues.

“This year we were two-thirds of the way back to 2019, and next year we should come a little closer than the year before that,” Gregory Marcus said.

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According to the entertainment industry publication Variety, global box office revenue in 2022 was nearly $30 billion, up 27 percent from the previous year. But it was still 35 percent below the three-year average ending in 2019, before the pandemic shuttered theaters and pushed viewers further into the habit of watching movies from the couch rather than on the big screen.

According to Marcus, part of the issue is that studios are still not producing the number of films for wide release that they did in past years.

“You need a full slate of movies,” he said, saying it’s difficult to know what type of film will end up being a hit with viewers, but that theaters depend on studios producing a mix of films, from superhero franchises to smaller-budget independents.

“The truth is we need close to 100 (films released) in a year,” Marcus said. “This year, we were down in the low 70s with new releases … and that’s a problem.”

Marcus said the company survived the pandemic with the help of state and federal aid, along with taking on debt.

“Every dollar helped,” he said. “We’re still dealing with the challenges it caused.”

Looking forward, he said, the company is diversifying the entertainment it offers at its venues, including adding concerts, comedy, sports and niche products like livestreaming the Metropolitan Opera or ballet.

“Eighty to 90 percent is still going to be movies,” Marcus said, noting that the company is likely to continue to explore new options for its customers. “I don’t even know yet what it’s going to look like.”

Meanwhile, he said, he is convinced that movie theaters will remain an important place for people to gather for entertainment, saying groups have come together for the experience of hearing stories and music together since ancient times.

“I think people forget what it’s like to go to the movies,” Marcus said. He said he himself was struck by the experience when he returned to his company’s theaters after they reopened. “I had forgotten what it was like to sit there in the dark, putting my phone down, not looking at anything else, not pausing it to go do something — I put myself in a cocoon and made myself a subject to the entire experience.”