A customer pays for popcorn at the newly reopened Century Theater in Napa on March 12, 2020. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)
The thing I remember most about the last time I went to a movie theater before they all shut down in mid-March was the sense of impending doom. The Roxie in San Francisco’s Mission District was almost empty — only two other people were present at the Thursday evening screening of the John Turturro vehicle The Jesus Rolls — and the staff looked worried and depressed.
"Everything's super subject to change right now," said box office manager Russell Hartling, handing me my ticket and a sanitizing wipe. "It's been really hard."
After months of missing the big screen experience and making do with services like Netflix, HBO and Amazon Prime on a small, tinny-sounding TV in my bedroom at home, it was nothing short of thrilling, last weekend, to plop down in a plush seat in front of a Hollywood blockbuster (Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi action movie Tenet) with a bag of popcorn once again.
The Century Theater in Napa is one of few Bay Area cinemas that have been back in business over the past two weeks since California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a new "tier system" for reopening indoor activities and businesses, depending on counties hitting and sustaining prescribed targets for COVID-19 cases.
Walking into the brightly lit lobby of the Century felt just like old times — except for a few health and safety-related details.
The soda fountains and condiment stations sat empty. Everyone wore masks. Signs on the floor reminded people to stand six feet apart, and posters on the walls outlined the theater's new "Cinemasafe" health and safety guidelines.
In the auditorium, my nearest neighbors sat at least three seats away from me on all sides, in accordance with state guidelines allowing theaters in counties with low enough COVID-19 rates to reopen at 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is less.
"Our I.T. folks created a seat-buffering technology within our ticketing system that allows us to block seats adjacent to a party once they've purchased their tickets," said Mike Wegner, who oversees operations for 20 California movie theaters owned by the Cinemark group, including the one I visited in Napa. "We've staggered showtimes to further ensure physical distancing."
Napa is currently one of four Bay Area counties, along with San Francisco, Santa Clara and Marin, where state officials have allowed indoor movie theaters to reopen at reduced capacity.
"Napa County has been operating in accordance with state guidelines since the onset of the pandemic," said Napa County public information officer Janet Upton of her region's decision to run with the state's mandate. "We are a small, rural county with barely 140,000 residents, so we continued to follow the state's mandates and guidance as we have all along."
But even though the state says they can, some local health authorities aren’t prepared to reopen their movie theaters just yet.
"There are three areas that may not open under the county risk reduction order. That is: indoor dining, indoor gatherings and indoor movie theaters," Williams said. "It's all the more important that we remain really vigilant and on top of trying to keep the case counts here locally as low as possible."
Some movie industry insiders are frustrated with the delay.
"We understand that by opening those theater doors, we are assuming a big responsibility," said Milt Moritz, regional (California/Nevada) president and CEO of the National Association of Theater Owners, a trade organization which represents more than 90 percent of screens in California. "We hope to be able to persuade the different health departments that, you know, they should have more of an open mind."
In San Francisco, where big screens remain off-limits for now, Roxie Theater executive director Lex Sloan said the mixed messages are confusing to audiences.
"A lot of people are saying, 'When are you going to reopen?' And I’m saying, 'Well, even though Governor Newsom said we could open, that doesn't mean Mayor London Breed has said that we can.'"
In some other regions of the country, movie theaters have been steadily reopening since June. Despite the reopening of outdoor screens here in the Bay Area, like the Westwind Capitol Drive-In in San Jose and the Lark pop-up in Corte Madera, the extended closure of indoor cinemas has taken a huge toll on the local moviegoing landscape. Some theaters have closed for good, like the Corte Madera Cinemark and the Raven Theater in Healdsburg—permanent casualties of the COVID-19 shutdown.
Meanwhile, theaters across the Bay have had to get creative to keep going. After burning through government funding and loans, Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol launched a fundraising campaign to shore up its dwindling cash reservoir. At the time of writing, the independent theater was just $900 short of meeting its $75,000 goal.
“Thursday will mark our seventh month of consecutive closure which is more than we could have ever imagined," said theater owner Ky Boyd. "We’ve done everything we can to stay afloat. It’s very scary because we have no rent relief. We need support from our government and our community."
As for the Roxie, Sloan said the past six months have been extremely tough, since around 80 percent of the theater's income stems from ticket sales and theater rentals. She has been forced to lay off many employees, and the cinema has relied on selling tickets to virtual programs for its survival.
Yet Sloan said she welcomes San Francisco’s cautious approach to reopening.
When the Roxie does eventually open its doors again for business, Sloan said, it’ll likely be only for private rentals at first. Beyond that, she plans to send out a survey to find out what movie audiences want to see when they can finally come back.
"As a community-driven nonprofit cinema, the community is our top priority," Sloan said. "The safety and health of our staff and patrons mean more to us than reopening quickly."
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