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Delaware to get new movie theater this fall as coronavirus brings big changes to the industry

Brandon Holveck
Delaware News Journal

As state-mandated shutdowns related to COVID-19 have threatened to bankrupt some of the country's largest movie exhibitors, local theater operator Arthur Helmick is preparing to open another venture in Delaware.

Milford Movies, slated to open on Route 113 in October or November, will be the city's lone movie theater. Over the last year and a half, construction crews have been converting a former Walmart into a nine-screen theater with heated leather recliners and digital laser projection. The estimated cost of the project is $12 million.

Helmick didn't consider canceling or pushing back the project beyond construction delays related to the virus. Building a following in Milford will likely take more time than when Helmick opened Westown Movies in Middletown and Main Street Movies in Newark, but he believes in the project long term.

A rendering of Milford Movies 9, which is taking the place of a Walmart on Route 113.

"I still think the experience of going out — the old adage of dinner and a movie — people still like to do that," Helmick said. "For the size of the entertainment, for two to three hours of entertainment, it’s still the cheapest form."

The first litmus test for Helmick's project will commence Monday, when movie theaters in Delaware will be allowed to open for the first time in two months as the state enters the first phase of its reopening plan.

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Local theater owners say the future is as uncertain as it's ever been as movie theaters face a number of industry-defining questions in light of the coronavirus pandemic. How eager will customers be to return? What movies will be shown? How will the theater experience change?

"It’s been very difficult," said Tiffany Derrickson, the third-generation owner of Rehoboth Beach's Movies at Midway. "During most of the country's history, the theater has remained a place of refuge ... where people went to escape reality. This is the first time in 100 years that the theater has not been able to be open and be here for the community, and we’ve missed that."

More:This family-run multiplex at the beach still sells candy for $1 and has free popcorn tub refills

Kelly Euston (left) and Raven Zetusky of Newark use the self-serve butter machine at Westown Movies in Middletown.

Milford Movies' projected opening aligns with new release dates for many of the year's top movies, including Marvel's "Black Widow" (Nov. 6) and "No Time to Die" (Nov. 25).

Helmick is hoping to offer an elevated movie experience. The seats will have adjustable headrests. Mini-booths will be built in each theater for his laser projectors. A 30-seat screening room will be available for parties and other events.

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The theater will also be convenient, Helmick said. People in Milford have to drive 25 miles north to the AMC Classic 14 in the Dover Mall or 22 miles south to Movies at Midway in Rehoboth Beach to catch a first-run movie.

"The area has just been steadily growing," Helmick said. "It’s like Middletown was 10 years ago. It’s a great place to be and the community is friendly."

The former Walmart in Milford shown in late 2018. The building is being converted into a movie theater, expected to open in late 2020.

What will the theater experience entail?

Large chains, including AMC Theatres, Regal Cinemas and Cinemark Theatres, are opting to keep their theaters closed as they wait for studios to release their major productions. The decision means Delaware's independent operators will be the first to define what the post-coronavirus movie experience looks like.

At Movies at Midway, concessions will be "grab and go" instead of served to order, and every other row will be blocked off, Derrickson said. Showtimes will be further apart to avoid crowds entering theaters as others exit, and the lobby will circulate in one direction.

When Helmick's existing theaters open, his ticketing system will be optimized to automatically leave space between moviegoers, and staff will follow detailed cleaning procedures. Helmick expects similar precautions to be in place when Milford Movies opens in the fall.

"It'll take time. In that process, we have to be faithful," Helmick said. "The whole world is working on this. Everyone in the Milford market will be able to rely on us to do our job to make sure we are being a safe place to watch a movie."

When they open this week, local exhibitors will be limited to showing smaller art-house films, releases from earlier this year and classic titles. Derrickson is planning to screen "Jaws," "Grease" and the Harry Potter series. All tickets will cost $6. Helmick hasn't released his lineup.

The family-run Movies at Midway multiplex in Rehoboth Beach is managed by the third generation of the Derrickson family and still offers $1 candy and free popcorn tub refills.

With theaters shuttered across America, studios pushed their major releases to the fall and sent some movies straight to video on demand. The nearest major studio release is Christopher Nolan's "Tenet," scheduled to hit theaters July 17. Whether that date holds is still in question.

"In terms of where we're headed and how long it's going to take to get back to not just restart but rebuild the theatrical engine, it could be years before everybody's on the same page (and) people feel comfortable," said Jeff Bock, a box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations.

Current construction progress on Milford Movie 9 on Route 113. The theater is projected to open in October or November.

The most dire forecasts for the industry predict customers won't flock back to the movies, instead opting to browse their own streaming libraries from home due to health concerns or the lack of new movies available in theaters.

After a blip, Helmick believes the theater experience will be just fine. After all, it survived when people bought televisions for their home, he says, and outlasted the VHS and DVD eras.

"You really can feel what the whole world feels about that movie," Helmick said. "I mean big movies that have impact on life ... when you sit in a room with people you don’t know, you have a whole different feeling than you can have sitting by yourself or one person on your couch."

USA TODAY contributed to this report.

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Contact Brandon Holveck at bholveck@delawareonline.com. Follow on Twitter @holveck_brandon.