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What to do with Empty Theater Lots

The movie theater industry has gone from concerned to terrified throughout the pandemic. As one of the industries to suffer the most during mandatory shutdowns, theaters have yet to see any return to normalcy. Movie theaters are an experience, but like shopping centers can be an experience, if the product can be delivered to the home, why go out? Consider these alternative options for an empty movie theater space.


Netflix might have been a relative unknown a decade ago, but now it’s blazing, streaming A-list movies that Hollywood never expected the need to compete. As the pandemic has lengthened its stay, Hollywood movie makers had to change the game to keep up. For example, Warner Bros. has announced that all their new releases will feature on HBO Max at the same time as the release to movie theaters. Disney+ has also changed its tune to releasing all new movies on its own streaming, instead of in theaters. Theaters take the blows as movie goers stay home and the movies as products are in such a low supply, there are fewer and fewer people going to the movies. 

A sad picture to paint. Hopefully, the movie theater industry will come back swinging post-COVID, but the reality is everything is changing. Even if the movie theaters can manage a comeback, there will still be empty theaters. An owner of a theater building has two options: renovate and reopen as another movie theater, or renovate and create an entirely different space. The surplus population of shopping centers has taught us that old spaces can be repurposed to something new, and profitable. 

There are a few considerations to reckon with when you begin to visualize a new space for a movie theater, such as leveling the floors that traditionally slope down closer to the screen, creating more lighting, etc. Challenges aside, grasp the concept of “If there is a will, there is a way” and make it happen. Also consider redevelopment takes time, that might be time enough for the pandemic to see its end (or at least a majority of the population vaccinated), allowing for the new space to open in time to welcome the masses. 

Consider these alternative options for an empty movie theater space.


Offices might not seem like the best conversion, considering many offices are standing empty. However, some company offices might be looking at relocating. Perhaps they need a bigger space to accommodate social distancing or hopeful growth. Others might need smaller spaces, to combat their previously high priced office. Another consideration would be to convert the movie theater space into a co-working space. Often, co-working spaces were originally odd buildings that needed a new purpose (ie an old candy factory). The pandemic also flung many employees out of traditional employment, meaning there could be an influx of entrepreneurs. Co-working spaces are ideal for start-ups, allowing them flexibility in pricing, often month to month leases, and amenities they traditionally couldn’t afford. 


As unemployment increases, the need for education increases. In order to find meaningful and lasting employment, many will resort to education paths. Tech colleges continue to flourish as many see the vitality of essential employment in technology, medical, services (such as electricians and plumbers), and many more. Universities may also expand to buildings off campus to provide more options for remote/distance learning. Charter schools and private schools may also increase as parents seek an education for their children that will have smaller class sizes (offering better social distancing) and potential for a quality education. 

Vehicle showroom

Electric vehicle manufacturer, Rivian, plans to redevelop Laguna Beach’s historic theater into a showroom as an effort to expand in retail. Other vehicle manufacturers, particularly high end and luxury, would also be a good fit. 

Live theater company/Concert venue

Live theaters companies and concert venues have suffered alongside movie theaters, but there could still be a good chance for revival. “The show must go on” is the mantra to keep plays and theater experience alive, but with a new twist. While audiences cannot fill the theater seats for their favorite play, theater companies can continue to please their parishioners by streaming the play, for now. The experience is not quite the same, but enough people are passionate about keeping theater alive to preserve theater companies until doors can open to live performances. Also, theater companies need a lot of room: room for costumes, sets, makeup and dressing rooms, room for all the cast and crew, etc. An empty movie theater could easily fit the bill. Concerts, for now, are also streamed, but there will be a time, hopefully in the near future, that concerts can continue and will need the space that empty movie theaters can provide. 

Mixed use development

Maybe the solution to the vacant movie theater is a mix of several ideas. If COVID has taught us one thing, humans don’t like to travel too far to get what we need. Consider creating a space that is mixed with retail, offices, and housing. 

Whatever the future holds, it’s best to view it creatively. An empty theater space might not revive as it once was, so spurn the wheels of reinvention and create a space that thrives in it’s new purpose. 

If you have a vacancy that you don’t know how to fill, reach out to a Retailsphere professional to discover creative ways to reimagine your empty space. 

Tags: In Depth, Top 5, Coronavirus

Written by Brooke Sanchez