In wake of COVID-19, Utah movie theaters ready to welcome guests back

Local News

A man watches a movie at a cinema after almost a year of theaters being closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

(ABC4) – As the pandemic continues to show signs of improvement, popular pastimes in the pre-COVID-19 days are gearing up to welcome folks back to some more normalcy.

For many, that means a trip to the movie theaters to grab some popcorn and catch a flick.

After a devastating year for movies, the industry is showing signs of recovery, especially in recent weeks. The monster battle blockbuster, “Godzilla vs. Kong,” grossed nearly $50 million on its opening weekend, making the Warner Bros. Studio film already the biggest moneymaker of 2021. Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon” has also done well at the box office.

To Megaplex Theatres VP of marketing Jeff Whipple, it made sense that movie-lovers would flock to the theaters to see a giant lizard fight an enormous gorilla for monster supremacy, even though that film was also released on the streaming service, HBO Max.

“We’ve performed great because Godzilla vs. Kong looks much different on an IMAX screen that’s 60 feet tall versus on your home screen that’s 80 inches at best,” Whipple tells ABC4.

“Raya” has also been a hit for the Megaplex. According to Whipple, Megaplex Theatres, with 14 Utah locations and one in Mesquite, Nevada, accounted for seven of the top 10 locations to see the Disney movie in North America, even with its additional availability on the Disney+ streaming platform.

While it’s clear by the numbers that many are ready to go back to the movies, it was a struggle to get theaters going again. The big screens at the Megaplex locations sat dark for three months before slowing allowed patrons in very limited numbers. Whipple and his team have had to come up with different ideas and innovations to keep audiences somewhat entertained such as offering private screenings for larger parties and providing curbside pickup for popcorn buckets to go.

Moving forward, they’re expecting to still enforce some of the health and safety protocols that were implemented last summer. Guests and employees will be required to wear masks for the foreseeable future. This, and other guidelines, have been recommended by the National Association of Theater Owners, and wanting to be a good member and help other theaters across the nation that are struggling to bring in crowds, Megaplex Theatres are following suit. Social distancing will also be enforced and made easy by a seat-placement algorithm that kicks in when guests buy their tickets.

Whipple also adds that the near future of the film industry will be determined by progress made in the moviemaking and theater-going capitals, New York and Los Angeles. If things improve there, it’ll be beneficial for the whole industry nationwide and across the world. The safer it gets to go to movies, the more movies will be made, says Whipple.

“Hollywood’s not going to release these massive blockbusters if they don’t have audiences across the country and literally around the world to see them,” Whipple adds.

Smaller theaters hoping to bring back families

While the Megaplex Theatres have the good fortune of corporate financing and the ability to provide the newest and biggest films, smaller theaters have had a tough time staying afloat.

Lisa Call, whose family owns and operates The Kaysville Theater in Davis County, describes to ABC4 the difficulty that the small 3-screen theater endured last year, which included having to shut down for three months.

“We are a family-owned and operated theater and so we do not have deep pockets. So it was pretty devastating. And then when we finally opened up the first of June, we had very limited seats, probably about a fourth of each auditorium,” says Call, whose family has run the theater since 1990. “Everybody was very hesitant to go out and to do anything. And so it was, it was slim, it was very slim and honestly, if it wasn’t for SBA and PPP we wouldn’t have made it.”

Kaysville Theater, which normally screens movies past their original screenings, has had the benefit of airing first-run releases for the first time in its history. “Raya” is currently the building’s headline attraction. Call doesn’t see that continuing for the theater, which has made its name for providing older films at a discounted box office for families. The hope is that the families will return to fill the theater soon.

“I do not ever anticipate us being 10 to $15 movie ticket,” said Call. “So as far as going to a first-run full-price movie theater, no we won’t. The community is very supportive and if they continue to be supportive, we’ll carry on.”

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