Like many entrepreneurs and film fans, Orinda Theatre operator Derek Zemrak held onto the hope that people would finally feel safe going back to the movies around Thanksgiving, when “No Time to Die” was due for release in theaters.
But this week, the potential billion-dollar James Bond blockbuster was pushed back to 2021, joining a cascade of other delays, including “Dune,” “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Black Widow.” Meanwhile, Emeryville’s Pixar announced Thursday that its was putting off the theatrical release of “Soul” and would instead begin streaming it on Disney+ on Christmas day.
The delays struck a major blow to the U.S. movie exhibition industry and have ended any chance of salvaging a movie year ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The delays also complicated an already dire situation for Zemrak and other operators of struggling Bay Area theaters. In Zemrak’s case, he could reopen, but his independent three-screen venue needs two money-making films a week to cover operating costs. But there are other reasons he has decided to stay closed right now.
“I think in general, we’re just not rushing to reopen because we want to make sure it’s safe,” Zemrak said.
Among other things, he feels protective of his theater’s loyal patrons, who have donated more than $130,000 to a GoFundMe campaign help keep the nearly 80-year-old venue afloat. The last thing he wants is for people to get sick at his neighborhood theater.
The operators of 3Below Theaters in downtown San Jose have similar safety concerns, which is one reason they have begun showing movies again as part of special four-week series of films with social justice themes — but only outdoors, with limited capacity and Plexiglass barriers, and on the roof the city-owned garage they are located in. It’s one of the many innovative ideas Bay Area theaters have come up with to generate much-needed revenue.
“Our goal is to reopen, when it makes sense safety-wise,” said Shannon Guggenheim. Added Cynthia Mortensen, manager of the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto: “We do not anticipate re-opening until there is a vaccine, and until we can assure the health and safety of our patrons.”
Such concerns remain among many operators, even after Gov. Gavin Newsom gave the green light in late August for indoor movie theaters to reopen if they’re in counties that have sufficiently contained their COVID-19 outbreaks. Drive-in theaters have been operating throughout the Bay Area since the summer.
National and regional chains Cinemark, AMC, Landmark and Maya have welcomed audiences back to locations in Contra Costa, San Mateo, Marin and Santa Cruz counties. The theaters must limit capacity to as little as 25 percent and require patrons and staff to wear masks.
But other chains don’t think it makes sense to sell tickets when there are no major movies to show. After “No Time to Die” was delayed, Cineworld, the third-biggest exhibitor in the United States, announced it was shuttering its theaters for the rest of the year, including its three Regal venues in the Bay Area. San Francisco theaters also announced this week they would stay closed because the county won’t let them sell drinks, popcorn and other food, a significant money-maker for any cinema.
“It’s very very tough situation for the movie industry right now,” said Allen Michaan, owner of the independent Grand Lake Theater in Oakland. “I fear for what happens when we finally get back to any normal kind of life. A lot of movie theaters won’t be around.”
For Michaan, who owns his building and equipment, said, “It costs less to stay closed than to open.” But his primary concern is safety, and he doesn’t believe people are ready to sit in theaters with a bunch of strangers — judging by what analysts say are low box office numbers nationally.
But Alameda Theatre owner Kyle Conner offers a different take, saying he’s heard from patrons who want to come back. He said the community of Alameda has been especially supportive of him restarting movies in his theater, a 1932 building that he restored.
Conner is frustrated that Alameda, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties didn’t follow the state’s timeline for letting indoor theaters reopen. Analysts said Hollywood decided to pull blockbusters from the calendar because officials in major markets New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco kept theaters closed.
“I could be open right now,” said Conner. “If Alameda County, San Francisco and L.A. had followed the state guidelines, a lot of movies on the release calendar would have held their dates. As of now, there are no films. It’s like running a restaurant without food.”
The delay of big studio movies is less of an issue for local Bay Area theaters that specialize in foreign, classic and other art-house fare. As a smattering of new foreign and independent films have been released, distributors have made these selections available for Bay Area theaters to show virtually.
Unfortunately, running a “virtual cinema” is not a sustainable business model, though it has been one way for independent theaters, which rely on community support, to keep their customers engaged, said Isabel Fondevila, programming manager for San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre.
“Virtual cinema is just a drop in the bucket, compared to what our theaters usually make,” Fondevila said. “(But) we’re grateful knowing that people are buying tickets to support the Roxie.”
Fondevila and other independent theater operators also said it doesn’t make business sense to reopen if their mostly small theaters can only fill 25-percent of seats and before they can offer patrons the true movie-going experience of being in a space with other cinephiles. Social distancing measures could dampen that experience, said to Carlos Emilio Courtade, community outreach manager for the New Parkway in Oakland.
“More than anything, our theater is a community space,” Courtrade said. “We encourage people to make friends, and you couldn’t do that now. And if we’re not able to do that, it’s going against our DNA.”