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Opinion: Gov. Whitmer vs. theaters; the political drama behind the screens

Dale Buss

Paul Glantz may be the most frustrated chief executive officer in America. The nine Michigan movie theaters in his Emagine Entertainment chain finally can reopen legally Friday, but the occasion will be bittersweet at best for the co-founder and chairman of the Troy-based enterprise.

And for good reason. Arguably, no other company in America has been more disadvantaged by arbitrary COVID-19 shutdown laws than Emagine. The 23-year-old chain operates 21 theaters with 12,600 seats and 255 screens in four states, but in Michigan Emagine is still being prevented by the governor from operating — a restriction largely eliminated across the rest of the United States.

Meanwhile, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has allowed churches to remain open, has liberated restaurants, has thrown open the doors to bars, gyms, strip clubs and massage parlors — and even bowling alleys for league play.

One can imagine Paul Glantz’s blood boiling weekly with every news report about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer brandishing her authority like some B-movie tinpot dictator, Buss writes.

Just don’t try to get Glantz to admit his frustrations. “There’s no question I’ve taken issue with some of the governor’s orders,” Glantz told me. “I can’t refute that. But concurrently, by nature I’m a pretty optimistic guy. And at this point it’s all about looking forward and saying, let’s learn from the past. Otherwise, I try to set aside any less-than-productive emotions and, going forward, focus on our guests and what we do best.”

Glantz’s nightmare is far from over. He’s lost about $40 million in revenue, and even tomorrow can reopen Emagine theaters only at 25% of capacity in Michigan, with few compelling new films to draw patrons anyway. Though last week the Michigan Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that Gov. Whitmer had exceeded constitutional use of her “emergency” powers in the state’s COVID-19 shutdowns, other governing authorities — including the state health department and Oakland County — already have swooped in to warn Michigan residents that we’re still not quite free.

Whitmer kept citing “the science and the data” to defend her stubborn demands to keep just a few types of businesses closed. But it’s hard to believe that her extended resistance to opening movie theaters specifically hasn’t, at least in part, stemmed from an unsuccessful lawsuit against her actions brought by Glantz this summer, in which he alleged everything from state violations of civil rights and due process to politically motivated hypocrisy.

One can imagine Glantz’s blood boiling weekly with every news report about Whitmer brandishing her authority like some B-movie tinpot dictator, then reluctantly taking the locks off nearly every single other industry. Meanwhile, in Minnesota and Illinois, Emagine was given permission to reopen theaters as early as May. Even in Wisconsin, run by a Democrat governor nearly as controlling as Whitmer, Emagine could reopen its theater in Lake Geneva on June 1.

And the health results have been great. “We have not a single reported outbreak of COVID-19 coming out of any of those venues,” said Glantz, who rattles off all the reasons watching a movie in a theater is medically safer than many other activities long ago approved by Whitmer. “So you certainly could have concluded that we didn’t pose any undue risk relative to other businesses that opened before us.”

Whitmer shut Glantz down when he wanted to stage a Juneteenth movie celebration at Emagine Royal Oak, celebrating Black artists and films with Black themes; an action that led to his lawsuit. And in the category of collateral damage, her targeting of theater operators has been heedless of a project that’s a darling of Michigan progressives: Emagine’s joint venture with rapper Big Sean to locate a huge entertainment complex in downtown Detroit.

The entire movie-exhibition industry has been caught in a vise because, while lockdowns persist in New York and in Los Angeles County, Hollywood studios keep pushing back release dates for major new movies, not wanting to squander potential blockbusters on empty or barely occupied theaters.

Glantz insisted that Emagine’s strong balance sheet will be able to see it through this crisis. Many of his peers aren’t so lucky because their companies weren’t financially well positioned.

“There are going to be a lot of bankruptcies in my industry,” Glantz said. “We were in good financial shape going in, and we’ve got some great bankers who are giving us some runway here, but my industry friends aren’t doing so well.”

One of the ironies of this situation is that Glantz is far from a firebrand; he’s more of a bean-counter type, having first helped to build Troy’s Proctor Financial Inc. He’s also an innovator, making Emagine the first chain to bring a sumptuous movie-watching experience to Michigan, and the first theater chain in the world to convert to 100% digital production, among many other firsts. Even during COVID-19, Glantz kept innovating, opening a drive-in theater in Novi, for instance. He’s also working on a plan for Emagine to livestream indie films locally.

Glantz showed before that he isn’t afraid to put himself front and center: He was one of the industry’s first CEOs to star in those pre-movie, turn-off-your-cellphones videos, once dressing up as a Jedi knight and another time as a baby shark, after the internet meme.  

Neither is Glantz afraid now to vow that Emagine’s two-year-old project with Sean — to develop a cinematic and live-music center in the Motor City, with the initial goal of opening next year — will continue. That’s despite COVID-19, the collapse of his business and continued government control that includes no visible help from Gov. Whitmer.

“There’s a lot of land in the city of Detroit, but not a lot that is in a well-traveled retail location or an area that has been regentrified already,” he explained. “So we’re looking for a needle in a haystack, and putting that all together has proven really challenging. But I think we’ve found the location. We just have to kick the bureaucracies into gear.”

Dale Buss is a veteran Detroit-area journalist, and founder and executive director of The Flyover Coalition, a not-for-profit organization that promotes the economic interests of the heartland. It’s at flyovercoalition.org.