A theater owner waits for customers, new movies and ‘some sort of support.’

For small businesses in the industries hit hardest by the pandemic, the lack of federal assistance is an existential threat — and time is running out.

Jon Forman bought the Cedar Lee Theatre, a movie theater in Cleveland that predated talking pictures, in 1977, and eventually operated five theaters in the area. He has weathered home movie rentals and streaming services, the rise of multiplexes and the costly switch to digital projection.

But the pandemic is different. Many Americans remain wary of sitting indoors with strangers for two or three hours. And studios, hesitant to distribute big-budget movies when few people will pay to see them, have been delaying major releases until 2021.

“We need the public to go to movies — we need new movies,” Mr. Forman said. “That, we all know, is not going to happen anytime soon.”

Big chains may have the resources to wait for better days, but Mr. Forman isn’t sure he does. He has reopened only two of his theaters, and neither is attracting enough patrons to break even, even with fewer than 10 employees, down from 85 before the pandemic.

“To operate the way we’re operating, none of it is sustainable,” he said.

Mr. Forman has closed one theater permanently. Two others have been dark since March, and he is thinking about shutting the two reopened ones until demand picks up. But he worries about the damage already done to his business — he has burned through cash reserves meant to pay for new seating to help compete with the multiplexes.

Mr. Forman received a loan last spring under the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which helped sustain the business for a while. But that money is gone, and Mr. Forman said independent theaters like his need more help — preferably grants, not loans.

“We’re on a slope going down,” he said. “Without some sort of support, businesses are not going to survive.”

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