The downtown Santa Cruz Nickelodeon Theatre sits empty in March 2022.
Downtown’s Nickelodeon Theatre as it stands now.
(Max Chun / Lookout Santa Cruz)
City Life

Fade to black? Revival of Santa Cruz’s beloved Nick could be a fantasy

Streaming and COVID-19 have dealt a double blow to the pastime of in-person moviegoing, and the half-century-old Nickelodeon looks like a casualty.

On Feb. 9, 2020, I sat in the back row of a sparsely populated theater inside the downtown Santa Cruz Nickelodeon Theatre for an evening showing of Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.” That same night, it became the first international feature film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, as I had expected considering the global buzz that it generated.

However, despite the early stages of COVID-19 anxiety creating parallel worldwide noise, I never would have expected that this would be my final trip to the Nick.

The unassuming, beloved, four-screen arthouse theater on Lincoln Street “temporarily” suspended services on March 16, 2020, along with just about every other business in town. Many are back in business, but the Nick — a local staple for 50 years — has yet to come back to life.

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Can it still be revived?

The Nick hasn’t been officially pronounced dead, but it certainly seems to be dying. The cause? It might seem like a no-brainer that COVID sped its closing. But streaming — an already popular force that was accelerated by the pandemic — has a hand in its demise as well.

For a hot second, it looked like the Nick might be making a comeback when the Del Mar, the other Landmark-operated theater in town, reopened in 2021. However, those hopes quickly slipped down the drain after weeks and months passed with the theater remaining shuttered, and the Nick’s Facebook page has been silent since the summer of 2021.

Landmark Theatres, one of the smaller national chains, continues to own the Nick, but still won’t speak about any plans to reopen the theater.

Margot Gerber, Landmark’s vice president of marketing and publicity, responded vaguely to Lookout’s inquiry.

“I have not heard of any plans for reopening the Nick at this time,” she said.

In fact, she asked us about anything happening on that block that Landmark should know about.

Our next attempt had us redirected to Scott Kleckner, Landmark’s chief operating officer, but he didn’t return our call. If these failed efforts say anything, it’s that reopening the Nick is not exactly high on Landmark’s list of priorities.

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Would Landmark sell the property that Zillow puts a $3 million value on? Would anyone buy it and operate it again?

We thought Jim Schwenterley, who owned and operated the Nick from 1992 until he sold it to Landmark in 2015, might be interested. But he has since moved out of the area, and our attempts to to reach him through Facebook were to no avail.

So, in our changed world of 2022, what does a closed Nick mean?

In the pre-pandemic days of downtown Santa Cruz, there was the Regal Cinema 9, the Del Mar, and the Nick. It was easy enough to find tickets to the newest Transformers or James Bond movie at the Regal location.

The Del Mar continues to show some indie films. For example, one could get into a showing of Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer,” featuring an acclaimed, tortured Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, or Julia Ducournau’s transgressive, Palme D’or winning-"Titane,” but these films received significant media attention for months. The Del Mar also screens some big-budget films like “The Batman” and well-known midnight movies like “The Big Lebowski” or “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” It bridges the gap between arthouse and mainstream.

Even Santa Cruz Cinema, which replaced the Regal 9, is currently showing the three-hour, meditative Japanese film “Drive My Car” — a movie that certainly would not have made its way onto the Regal screen. So even though art films haven’t disappeared entirely from Santa Cruz’s cinema scene, the exclusively arthouse sensibilities of the Nick’s programming are still missing.

For Santa Cruz, the Nick was more than just a movie theater. It was the one place in town where cinephiles, young and old, converged to share their love for the obscure.

The desolate ticket window at the Nickelodeon Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz
The desolate ticket window at the Nick.
(Max Chun / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Casey Beyer, CEO of the Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce, says the Nick faced more uncertainty than other institutions despite its loyal following.

“Because of its independent, non-mainstream-oriented screenings, it had a really good following in town,” he said. “But the pandemic caused a lot of small business owners to rethink their future.”

Like many others, Beyer said he had heard rumors of a push to reopen the theater, but that’s all that they turned out to be. Aside from that, he has not heard of any plans to reopen.

Beyer also said that Santa Cruz’s standing as a small market only hurts the possibility of reopening.

As the Nick’s future continues to look bleak, the owner of the other significant player in town sheds light on the new nature of in-person moviegoing.

CineLux Theatres operates recently updated theaters in Capitola and Scotts Valley. CEO Paul Gunsky says that due to reduced capacities, many film studios have been conservative with their releases for the past two years.

“When we could reopen, there wasn’t really much quality product to play,” he said, adding that without a COVID vaccine, people weren’t coming out much. “Studios were relying on streaming services and delaying a lot of product because they just didn’t want to release it in that climate.”

Gunsky said the independent film industry is no exception to this, causing indie and arthouse-oriented theaters to suffer severely — even a local gem like the Nick.

“This is happening all over the country where smaller arts complexes are just unable to reopen right now because there is not a consistent flow of independent art films,” he said.

Because CineLux is a local business, with more nearby locations than Landmark — its movie houses are found in San Jose, Campbell, Gilroy, Morgan Hill and Brentwood as well — Gunsky said it can curate a larger variety of films since it doesn’t have a huge number of theaters to oversee.

Even so, it has relied almost entirely on big-budget releases to generate revenue while crawling out of the pandemic hole. Out of 100 films screened at both the Capitola and Scotts Valley locations since January 2021, only six were considered independent or specialized, according to Gunsky.

“We had a terrific December with Spider-Man, but that was really just the end of December,” he said. “The first two weeks of the month we were probably at about 30%, so overall about 60% of normal.”

And this is coming from a theater that screens a number of blockbusters. Places like the Nick, prioritizing independent, often smaller-budget films, have it even worse.

“Right now, the consistency of film quality is not where it needs to be,” Gunsky said. “Once it’s more consistent, we’ll certainly be a much healthier industry.”

So until indie film studios feel fully comfortable committing to wide releases for their movies, film enthusiasts like myself will have to do more of the same as we drive down Lincoln: waiting and seeing.

And if the Nick does end up a relic of the past, it’s anyone’s guess as to what takes it over.

“The building isn’t big, so the question is what can go in there,” said Beyer. “Could you remodel and revamp it? I don’t know, but I’m not sure anyone wants to put a bucket of money into it when plans are so uncertain.”