The smell of fresh popcorn, the taste of savory soft drinks, the surround sound of a dark theater. Everything that people love about going to the movies is back … or coming back. But it’s not so simple. Box offices took major hits last year, and while customers are starting to claim seats again, they aren’t filling them like they did before COVID. Now, though vaccines are widely available and many Americans feel safe going back to “normal,” movie theaters must face another challenge: the impact of streaming services like Netflix and Disney+.
Closed during the height of the pandemic, big screens across the nation have been tempting home-bound, stir crazy movie-goers back into theaters. Most South Florida cinemas began reopening with reduced movie showings
and theater hours about a year ago.
At the Landmark Theatre in the Shops at Merrick Park in Coral Gables, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the
Ten Rings,” and “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” have dominated movie marquis this fall, making this the
busiest theaters have been since the start of the pandemic.
Masked and unmasked patrons are trickling back to their favorite cinemas, reviving their entertainment
options and once again debating their concession stand choices: chicken tenders, fries or popcorn?
Angel Espinoza, a guest services employee at the CMX Brickell, said normalcy is returning.
It’s been pretty busy,” he said. “It’s nice seeing couples and friends enjoy the movies.”
Out on a date night at the Cinebistro CMX in Doral, Walter Gonzales and Ashely Galba were headed in to watch Marvel’s “Shang Chi.”
“The thing we missed coming to the theater was just watching a movie in full action, the concept of the buttery popcorn and just the hot dogs, things like that,” said Gonzales, 27, a Miami resident.
To lure reluctant movie-goers back, theaters are pushing promotions such as “$7 Tuesday” movies, discounted movie plans and private-party theater rentals.
“It used to be $20 per ticket, but we wanted to make it accessible for people that were strapped for cash aft er COVID-19,” said Melida Chavarria, assistant manager at Cinebistro CMX in Doral.
Kelly Smith and Alex Jones, both 31-year-old South Florida natives, celebrated their friend’s birthday at the Merrick Park Landmark, where they held a private viewing of “No Time to Die” for their 10-member group.
“I think one reason we’re here is because movie theaters are off ering special deals,” Jones said.
Valory Greenman, a University of Miami senior program coordinator, said she has seen 29 movies since July. As an AMC Plus member, she can see up to three movies a week for $21.95 a month. A three-month membership in the discount plan is required.
“I’ve really enjoyed going,” said Greenman, who said she most recently saw “Eternals” at Sunset AMC in South Miami in November. “I saw a fair number of movies I never would have seen.”
Frequent movie-goer Amanda Reyes said she feels comfortable in theaters, even though it’s been about two
years since she has seen a movie in person. She said she was happy to see that Cinebistro CMX was still off ering
food and drinks to patrons “like the pandemic never happened.” But the pandemic did happen.
Sanitizer, Masks and Movie Tickets
Box office revenue in the United States and Canada was down over $30 billion dollars in 2020 from 2019, according to a Statista report. Margot Gerber, vice president of marketing and publicity for Landmark Theatres, the nation’s largest theater chain, said the company’s revenues were down by about 90%.
Greenman, who averages about two movies a week at Sunset, said only about 10 people are in theaters when she
goes around 5 p.m. Occasionally, there are 25 to 30.
When the movies reopened, audiences were concerned about how COVID-safe movie theatres are, Gerber said. “A big question was: ‘Were people ready to sit side by side in a closed space again?’”
To address the state’s heavy COVID-19 casualty statistics, South Florida cinemas established various pandemic protocols, from requiring workers to wear a mask to scheduling empty seats in between groups, to sanitizing theaters after each showing.
Kendall resident Juan Carlos Nakamine, 34, had a weekly movie habit prior to COVID and did not have to be coaxed to return. When “Tenant” was released in the summer, he said theaters had several protocols in place.
“They would get the popcorn for you, they would get the drinks for you, they would have hand sanitizers everywhere and you would have to wear a mask,” said Nakamine, who went to Sunset Place 24 to see “No Time to Die” in October. “If you were to reserve a seat, you couldn’t sit next to somebody.”
Christopher Sardi, a 23-year-old command center operator at LoanDepot Park, the Miami Marlins facility, said safety measures have made it more comfortable to resume his movie habit.
“I like to feel the movie, like I’m immersed in the movie,” said Sardi, who spent an October afternoon at the AMC Tamiami 18. “I feel very safe. I could lick the seat.”
Greenman said she has felt safe at Sunset AMC because she sees attendants waiting to clean the theaters
after each showing, and she gets to choose her seat from a digital seating chart.
“I always choose a seat where no one is sitting next to me,” Greenman said. “If someone comes in afterwards
and is sitting by me, I just move.”
At CMX Cinebistro, Gonzales said he noticed hand sanitizers in theater corners.
“They do have signs that state like, you know, hey, if you’re vaccinated, you’re OK,” said Gonzales. “You don’t have to wear a mask. I think it’s pretty cool. They’re giving you the option, you know.”
John Carlo Gomez, a guest service employee at AMC Tamiami, said the demand for moviegoers wearing masks
“Masking is only required for workers, not customers,” he said.
Landmark Theatres’ 39 locations are following Center for Disease Control guidelines for masks, but also check state and city rules, Gerber said.
“Customers vary in terms of the mask mandate. Some do, some don’t. We’re just rolling with it because there’s not much else we can do,” Gerber said.
The Future of Films
But even with cheaper, cleaner seats, movie theaters still are looking for more die-hard fans to return. Managers, hoping for 2021 holiday sales to improve, saw a bleaker picture last year.
“It was dead, totally dead,” said Julio Ruiseco, manager of the Le Jeune Cinema 6. Just weeks before the holidays, the number of movie-goers are comparatively low to pre pandemic crowds even a year aft er his theater reopened.
“I would say we are at maybe 50 or 60% of what we were before, on average,” Ruiesco said. “We’ve had some sell outs here and there, just not the same level we used to have.”
Erick Sarmie, manager of AMC Sunset Place 24 in South Miami, attributes some of the lackluster ticket sales to the scarcity of movies released during the pandemic.
“Recently new movies like ‘Free Guy’ and ‘No Time to Die’ came out, and holiday season movies will pick up very much,” Sarmie said.
Another movie comeback challenge: streaming options. Movie theaters are taking a hit, managers and movie-goers say.
“Some of them, especially Disney, have been releasing their movies at the same time on Disney+ as they do in theaters, and that hurts us a lot,” Ruiseco said.
“If it was on Disney+, we would not have come to watch it,” said Reyes. “The pandemic changed us; we just don’t go out much anymore.
Miami quarterback D’Eriq King, out for the season after the third game with a right shoulder injury, said he perfers streaming platforms over movie theaters.
“I mean it’s cheaper, more convenient and now I don’t have to deal with other people too,” he said. “Watch when this idea gets bigger, movie theaters will be no more.”’
Although streaming services are taking business away from theaters, fans say they are still enjoying the magic on the big screen.
“Movies are costly, so if people could see it at home on the same day, they would rather do that,” said Nakamine. “But watching something like ‘Avengers’ … there was a big cheer from the audience in the end. I missed sharing that with people.”
Gerber, the Landmark executive, said movie theaters are relying on a younger generations to reverse the heavy revenue loss.
“We really need young people to come out,” Gerber said. “Some of our senior audience won’t come back because they are concerned for their health.”
Anais Mitra, a third-year law student at the University of Miami, was among the scores of Gen Z movie-goers this fall in South Florida.
“I haven’t been to the movies in so long, even before COVID,” said Mitra, who saw “No Time To Die” at the Silverspot Cinema in downtown Miami. “It’s a really long movie, but we’re going to order lots of food.”
words_ maximiliano mereles. photo_martin hidalgo. design_maria emilia becerra.
This article was published in Distraction’s winter 2021 print issue.