As pandemic restrictions lift, local cinemas are still waiting to expire

When “Godzilla vs. Kong” hit theaters and HBO Max in March at the same time, theater owners knew it was a test: as the pandemic subsided, would customers return to the movies?

“We all held our breath with this movie and that was the first sign,” said Mark Malinowski, vice president of global marketing for Showcase Cinemas, which has theaters across the country, including the famous SuperLux theater in Chestnut Hill.

Crowds came for the monster movie, he says, and Memorial Day weekend ticket sales were only about 40% lower than in 2019, proving there is an enthusiastic following of moviegoers. vaccinated ready to return to the wards. The industry “is starting to expire now,” Malinowski told GBH News.

Getting back to normal will be an uphill battle. According to Mojo Ticket Office, national numbers in the weeks after the holidays are still around 40-45% lower than the same weekends in 2019, with the best results being “A Quiet Place Part II” and “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Must”.

After a year of closed theaters, capacity restrictions and in-home streaming, local theaters have expressed concern over their industry’s plight as Massachusetts lifts its COVID-19 restrictions. For now, local theaters say the mood is mostly cautious optimism.

Malinowski said Showcase is confident that “event” movies – sequels and franchises like “F9” and “Black Widow” – will bring people back to theaters this summer after a year of watching movies on the couch. In fact, Showcase is working on a new theater in Hanover which will open at the end of this year or the beginning of next year.

Two high-end cinemas in Boston recently closed. The Seaport’s ICON Theater, which offered fine dining and an upscale experience, closed in March after three years, citing the economic impact of the pandemic. In April, Boston’s ArcLight Cinema at TD Garden’s Hub on Causeway, which opened in November 2019, announced it would not reopen due to the closure of the national channel.

Matt Martinelli, former editor of the Improper Bostonian, said those closures could have happened even without the pandemic. Within a few years, he noted, these two theaters opened with the AMC in South Bay. Before that, moviegoers in the city already had two options for blockbusters and new releases: the Boston Common AMC and the Fenway Regal.

“It was probably an over-expansion that could have been addressed somehow, even if there hadn’t been COVID,” he said.

Abbi Reyes and Carlos Peraza at AMC Boston Common on June 11, where they had seen “A Quiet Place Part II”.

Meghan Smith / GBH News

Carlos Peraza, who lives in Revere, was at AMC Boston Common on June 11 to see “A Quiet Place Part II”, and said he was delighted to be back and check out the horror film on big screen.

“It’s the experience,” he said, noting that he felt safe inside the theater as it was not crowded. “Being at the theater, the big TV, you have your own seat, it’s more comfortable. … It’s a good plan to go out with your friends to the movies and have fun. This is exactly the answer cinema owners are banking on.

Across the river, a theater that still holds its breath is the Brattle Theater, the Harvard Square cinema that shows classic, foreign, and auteur films. The Brattle will reopen to the general public in early July, having been closed since March 2020 with the exception of private screenings and a few soft openings for members.

While Ned Hinkle, Brattle’s creative director, says it’s too early to say how the theater industry will adjust this time around, he’s optimistic that theaters like the Brattle will always have a competitive edge in the field. post-pandemic landscape.

“The focus for the Brattle is always on the theatrical experience,” he said. “What we are offering you is the possibility of seeing it, in the case of a film like ‘Casablanca’, as it was intended to be seen.”

Hinkle pointed to the long history of movie theaters in the United States, noting that the industry has always been threatened by something – radio in the 1930s, the world wars, television in the 1960s, renting homes in the 1980s, 2009 recession – all the way. Back to another pandemic in 1918.

“It changed everything in the movie business,” Hinkle said. When independent cinemas closed, the studios bought them back and created circuits to present their own films. Of the, the studio system gave birth to the golden age of Hollywood after the upheaval of the pandemic.

A big issue for movie theaters in the future is the shift around theatrical “windows”, the time between a movie’s release in theaters and when it can be viewed at home. Margot Gerber, vice president of marketing and advertising for Landmark Theaters, which manages the Kendall Square cinema in Cambridge, said this month’s hit of “A Quiet Place Part II,” which had a shortened theatrical window before to be available on Paramount +, bodes well for changing relationships between studios, theaters and streamers.

“I think the theaters that survive are the ones that are kind of part of the community,” Gerber said.

The Coolidge Corner Theater against a blue sky and clouds.
Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theater hosted its first screening of a new version on June 10.

Meghan Smith / GBH News

In Brookline, Katherine Tallman, executive director and CEO of the Coolidge Corner Theater, said community support was key to helping Coolidge overcome the pandemic. “The community allowed us to continue,” she said, recalling that throughout the year, donations were received from across the country, ranging from $ 5 to $ 50,000.

“It could have been an unfortunate story,” Tallman said. “We didn’t know if people would come back. ”

The Coolidge officially reopened to the public on May 13 and hosted its very first screening of a new release, the musical “In The Heights”, on June 10. In an interview with GBH News right after the screening, Tallman said she felt a sense of relief about the future – ticket sales are exceeding expectations.

Sam Leder, a Somerville resident, was at the Coolidge to see “In The Heights” with her sister Mindy last Thursday. For the two, it was the first time they had returned to the cinema since before the pandemic.

“I am delighted to be returning to the cinema to support this cinema in particular,” she said. “I also love this cinema. I feel like it’s really special inside.

Challenges remain. For example, Gerber said the national labor shortage in the hospitality industry is also having an impact on movie theaters. And there are still concerns that the streaming habits developed during the pandemic will keep more people at home.

But optimists say theaters can coexist with streaming. “I still have hope that (…) people’s love of cinema is going to be reinvigorated,” said Hinkle of the Brattle Theater.

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