For Chanhassen Cinema owner Martin Hubbard, watching his attendance slow to a crawl in March was “like having a heart attack.”
“All you’re thinking is, what’s going on, what’s going on? Then everything shuts down. We thought it would be a month or two, but then Hollywood started pushing the movies back. We could open, but what are we going to show them?” he said.
A community staple also known for its giant Prince mural, the Chanhassen Cinema has been around for over 20 years. Hubbard, who has been in and out of the theater industry for decades, bought the Cinema and the Excelsior Dock in 2018. (The Dock is closed due to lack of staff.)
Normally, Hubbard sees 300,000 patrons a year — but year to date, numbers are down 95%. Before COVID-19, he had 40 staff members. Now, he’s the only one, working six days a week, nine hours a day.
Other west metro theaters are facing the same hardships. The popular CMX Odyssey theater in Burnsville is temporarily closed, as is the Marcus Shakopee Cinema. The latter cited a lack of new movies as its reason for closing, according to a Marcus Theaters spokesperson. And it’s not just a local problem — AMC Theatres, the world’s largest theater chain, said it could run out of money by the end of the year.
“The first couple days when we reopened (around Labor Day), no one showed up, even when I sold popcorn. Business has still been stagnant ... the first customer comes through each day and you think 'Thank God,' and you keep praying for that second customer,” Hubbard said.
The drop in patrons isn’t exclusively due to COVID-19 restrictions. The entire movie industry has changed, Hubbard said.
Hollywood slates movies for a certain release date, but they only release the movie if they’re going to get their money back. With the entire country being closed, movies are being pushed back in hopes of a full theater later, so new releases are no longer guaranteed, he explained.
“They want to put their movie out to as many markets as they can ... but when you can only have 25 people in a theater and are getting $250 instead of $2,000, it’s not even worth it sometimes. Hollywood takes their cut as well ... so the theater ends up with $120 at the end of the day,” he said.
Another problem? Movies that were intended to be in theaters are being sold to streaming services — like the Eddie Murphy movie ‘Coming 2 America,’ which was bought by Amazon Prime, instead of a silver screen release in December. Right now, every available movie in Chanhassen is PG-13 or R-rated, which also makes for a more limited audience.
When lockdowns started, people were visiting to buy popcorn and gift cards, which was nice at the time, Hubbard said. But without patrons seeing an actual movie, it shows low demand, so Hollywood continues to hold movies until numbers pick up.
He could find older movies to play, like their previous screening of "The Goonies." But with streaming services so prevalent, it’s hard to get people to pay for something they could see for free, he said.
Renting out a screen in a theatre to show your own movies has become a popular alternative, but it’s more complicated than it seems. In order to show a movie commercially, even to a small group of people, Hubbard must obtain the rights and pay a licensing fee, which is often around the same cost as renting out the screen.
“We sell an experience, and I need products to sell to get them back in. I can’t sell something you have at home, and without that attendance, Hollywood won’t put out their product,” he said.
Hubbard, who sits on the board of North Central National Association of Theater Owners, has received some assistance from local government. His CARES funding from Carver County came in a few weeks ago, which helped with a small amount of overhead expenses. But compared to some of his fellow NATO members, he’s far behind.
Theaters in nearby states have received government funding — like Wisconsin, which announced a $10 million grant for movie theaters in early October and is awarding $10,000 per screen. NATO is petitioning Gov. Tim Walz to enact a similar program.
There could also be some hope via the Save Our Stages Act, which was added to the proposed federal coronavirus relief package a few months ago. If passed, it would provide $10 billion for independent venues and other music-oriented businesses.
“I’m lucky enough to where I can sit here all day and don’t have to pay myself, because I can’t afford it,” Hubbard said.
As of early November, he sees around 30 people per day on the weekends. Their biggest day was when "After We Collided" opened — they were one of two theaters in the area showing the movie, which brought in around 200 people that day.
He hopes the safety precautions will help patrons feel more comfortable. For example, anyone who books a seat will be surrounded by a “bubble” of empty ones to ensure proper social distancing, and groups are limited to six people.
But even after the pandemic, things won’t be the same for movie theaters.
Hollywood has seen success releasing new movies on streaming platforms instead of heading directly to theaters — for example, the children’s film "Trolls World Tour" made nearly $100 million in three weeks from streaming rentals in April, prompting a fight between AMC Theatres and Universal Studios over skipping the big screen for good.
Right now, Hubbard said he can keep the theater open through the end of November. He’s hoping he can hold out for the Excelsior Fire Department’s annual free kids movie, where the department pays for the movie in exchange for an “entry fee” of a can of food or donations. After that? It's up in the air.
“The theater business is just different now. As long as product keeps coming and people keep coming to see movies, I can stay open. If they don’t come … well, I’ve got to eat.”
Just over 3,200 votes.
That was the margin Republican President Donald Trump had over Democratic President-Elect Joseph Biden this November in Carver County.
As election season wraps up, officials are seeing a trend: The ballot count between Republican and Democratic candidates is narrowing as Carver County continues voting bluer.
Here’s what the numbers, per the Minnesota Secretary of State, mean in a larger context.
In this year’s 2020 general election, Trump gained 34,006 county votes compared to 30,761 by Biden.
In 2016, 29,063 Carver County voters went for Trump and 21,514 chose Democrat Hillary Clinton. In 2012, county voters went for Republican Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by a count of 31,155 to 20,756.
Though this is the 22nd election Carver County has voted in the majority for a Republican Party candidate, the margin is shrinking: 10,399 in 2012; 7,549 in 2016; 3,245 in 2020.
“Clearly those numbers are telling me that countywide, the county’s turning bluer,” said Joe Polunc, chair of the Carver County GOP.
In the 2016 presidential election, the cities of Carver, Chaska and Victoria went for Trump. Chanhassen voters chose Clinton. This year, Carver, Chaska and Chanhassen all voted for Biden, while Victoria remained strongly GOP-favored.
Local party officials say more development in Carver County could be the reason for the shift.
“As we become more and more suburban in character, I think it’s tending to slowly shift a little bit more progressive in people’s attitudes. I think it’s just a reflection of younger families, younger people,” said Carver County Democrats Chair Mary Leizinger.
“I think that’s pretty common for all the outer-ring counties around the metro area,” he said. “Take a geographical tour of the metro area. People are coming in from the urban core and they’re bringing their politics with that.”
City of Carver voters went for Biden over Trump this year, 1,568 versus 1,460. The last time Carver voted for a Democratic presidential candidate was in 1992.
“I think given the smallness of that community and then given percentage of growth in terms of new housing … That impact was much more strongly felt in Carver,” Leizinger said.
All four of Chaska’s wards went for Biden this year; the last time the city chose a Democratic presidential candidate was in 1996.
All three of Victoria’s precincts went for Trump. Victoria voters haven’t gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964.
Chanhassen remained blue this year, with all precincts voting in the majority for Biden.
STATE LEGISLATUREHowever, while eastern Carver County towns moved to the left for presidential candidates, they continue to mostly (albeit sometimes narrowly) lean right for U.S. Congressional races, as well as State legislative races in Senate District 47 and House districts 47A and 47B.
Overall county percentages still mostly favored Republicans, opting anywhere from 3.2% to 37% more votes for GOP candidates.
State Representative District 47B was relatively close, with Republican Greg Boe (14,169 votes) defeating DFL candidate Dan Kessler (13,286 votes) by 883 votes. (Boe defeated his Democratic challenger by 117 votes in 2018.)
Meanwhile, the portion of Chanhassen represented by State Senate District 33 and State Representative District 33B favored DFL candidates Gretchen Piper and Kelly Morrison by 2.1 and 3.4%, respectively.
Polunc said Carver County as a whole remains “solidly red,” but changes the farther east you go.
“That’s been going on for quite some time, but this year seems to be a little more abrupt than I would have thought,” he said. “It was surprising but I just didn’t know what to expect.”
Since it’s a Census year, congressional redistricting could alter which senate districts cities fall into in the next election.
Both local leaders said their parties handled COVID appropriately this year — Leizinger said her party was “responsible” in campaigning this year; Polunc said the local GOP did a “fairly incredible job,” but said there’s always room for improvement.
On a larger scale, Polunc said the GOP party landed on a positive note this year.
“In general, nothing really changed with respect to who is in various positions in the House or Senate. That’s, for our purposes, a success,” he said. “Carver County only has so much influence in some of those statewide races, because they cover other parts of the metro area. Our influence is limited.”
Leizinger said despite Eastern Carver County mostly favoring Biden this year, local results weren’t as strongly Democratic as her party would like to see.
“I think it’s encouraging. I would have liked us to do a little bit better but I was also encouraged that a very large chunk of the electorate in Carver County agreed with the state of Minnesota,” Leizinger said. “I was gratified and happy to see us making a contribution for that. Every vote makes contributions for the whole.”