The neighborhood movie theater has faced many challenges over the years, but as the movie industry digs out from a lost year, theaters and filmgoers alike wonder what comes next.
Lisa Jensen’s first job out of UC Santa Cruz was as a cashier for the United Artists movie theater on Front Street in downtown Santa Cruz.
“I took my B.A., and got a job dishing out popcorn and selling tickets,” she said, “and I got my 10-minute breaks to go watch movies.” Soon after, she got her first assignment reviewing movies — “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” which she loved — for the weekly Good Times.
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Forty-four years later, she was still writing about movies for Good Times, an unbroken streak that covered the late ’70s rebel renaissance, the ’80s blockbuster mania, the ’90s Merchant-Ivory arthouse revival and every other movie trend of recent decades.
But all that was pre-pandemic.
Jensen’s 45th year reviewing movies — 2020 — was unlike any other that came before it. No popcorn. No press screenings. No two-thumbs-up write-ups. No movies.
“The last movie I saw in a theater was March 13, (2020),” she said, reflecting on the sudden shutdown of the past year. “At the time, the idea was, ‘oh, we’ll be closed for a couple of weeks, maybe a month. We just have to get over this thing and we’ll be back in business.’”
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Instead, the movie business, in Santa Cruz County and around the world, experienced a surreal kind of suspension unknown in its century-plus history. The movies — at least as a public experience — went dark, and except for a few weeks last fall, they’ve remained dark, at least in California.
Many counties in California, including Santa Cruz County, are expecting to emerge from the most restrictive purple tier in the next few weeks, which means movie theaters will be free to open again, albeit at 25% capacity.
Barring dramatic reversals in the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the move into the less restrictive red tier will signify the first step in a long climb back to normal for movie houses. And both theaters and moviegoers are wondering what kind of industry they’ll find on other side of the pandemic.
Already, the Regal Cinema 9 in downtown Santa Cruz is planning to close its doors, according to an email to employees obtained by Lookout. That comes two years after closing the neighboring Riverfront Twin.
But other exhibitors in the county are charging ahead.
Paul Gunsky is the owner/operator of CineLux Theatres, a small chain based in the South Bay that manages 53 screens at seven theaters, including the Scotts Valley Café & Lounge and the Capitola Café & Lounge.
Gunsky said he is “cautiously optimistic” about 2021, and his theaters getting back to showing movies for its ticket-buying audiences. He said that, both at CineLux and across the industry generally, pre-pandemic business was as healthy as it ever been, citing 2019 as “one of our stronger years.”
But 2020 marked a massive reset in the movie industry, thanks largely to a giant leap forward in the market power of streaming and video-on-demand through such big players as Netflix, Amazon and HBO.
After a year of not going out to the movies and of having more and more enticing entertainment options delivered to the home via streaming, many in the business are wondering if the movie-going habit is doomed, or, like flowers after a spring rain, the traditional movie experience will bloom as it has before.
“The pressure certainly has been on movie theaters to continually evolve and provide a state-of-the-art experience for our guests,” said Gunsky. “And that bar continues to keep rising.”
‘Plate full’ re-opening safely
Since CineLux took over the Scotts Valley and Capitola cinemas in 2009, Gunsky has upgraded both theaters with beer/wine service and a café in each. In Scotts Valley, he even installed some D-box seats that add motion corresponding to the action on the screen.
CineLux has often moved into previously closed theaters, which was the case in Scotts Valley and Capitola. But when asked about the closed Regal properties downtown, Gunsky was noncommittal, “We have our plate full just getting our theaters to reopen safely.”
Landmark Theatres, the Southern California-based company that owns and operates the Del Mar and the Nickelodeon in downtown Santa Cruz, is working in a slightly different realm. Landmark runs theaters across the country, but about a quarter of their screens are in Northern California.
And, with a few exceptions, Landmark plays films in the “arthouse” arena, high-prestige films with smaller budgets (and smaller audiences) than the big commercial mainstream properties.
Margot Gerber, Landmark’s vice president for publicity and marketing, said that the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz, which has been closed for a year now, will remain closed indefinitely for reasons that have nothing to do with the pandemic. “There are some safety issues with the building that need to be addressed,” she said.
However, the Del Mar, the grand Art Deco style movie palace on Pacific Avenue that originally opened in 1936, will open again once the county moves into the red tier. In fact, she said, in the first stages of reopening when audiences will be wary of small indoor spaces, the spacious Del Mar, with more than 1,200 seats in its main theater, could have an advantage.
The box office draw now, she said, “doesn’t have much to do with what kind of movie you’re playing. It’s really all about people’s comfort levels with sitting inside with strangers. Theaters that are larger are going to have an upper hand.”
In Santa Cruz, Lisa Jensen has been hearing from scores of friends and movie fans while she’s in reviewing limbo. “I know there are people desperate to go out to movies again,” she said. “And it seems like they will since Santa Cruz has always been a big movie town. We’ve always had more screens here than we’ve known what to do with.”
Indeed, at least since the establishment of UC Santa Cruz in the 1960s, Santa Cruz has been friendly ground for arthouse, experimental, and foreign cinema. The Nickelodeon was opened by cinephiles Bill and JoAnne Raney back in 1969 to steady business. A few years later, the Raney’s Sash Mill Cinema became a “repertory” house, with quickly changing titles of oldies, cult films, and art films.
When United Artists abandoned the rundown Del Mar, the Nickelodeon’s new owners moved into it, before Landmark took over both the Nick and the Del Mar in 2015. (The Del Mar building is owned by the city of Santa Cruz.)
Arthouse affinity a good sign
Santa Cruz’s history with arthouse cinema may make it a safe haven in an otherwise stormy future for the movies, according to Landmark’s Margot Gerber. Arthouse audiences, she said, are more likely to embrace the big-screen movie-going experience than mainstream audiences.
Citing industry surveys and research, she said, “arthouse movie-goers are probably more inclined to see things on a big screen because they value the experience (of) having the solitude to watch a movie without someone calling or visiting, that real immersion in the movie.”
In fact, she said, mainstream movie theaters might be in more trouble because they historically have made less of the social aspect of moviegoing. “I think commercial theaters are going to decline faster than arthouse, because arthouses will often offer different opportunities like filmmaker Q&As or movie clubs. There’s a big social element to it.”
Jensen, the late Cabrillo instructor Morton Marcus and others have been at the center of the social element of Santa Cruz movie culture, with events and movie clubs that were thriving right up to the pandemic.
At Capitola and Scotts Valley, smaller community theaters that have to find a way to offer both commercial and arthouse films to their audiences, the focus remains on improving the filmgoer’s individual experience, which could mean more and better concessions, bigger and more comfortable seats, and technologies such as laser projection for an even better picture.
“As you look into the future, you’ll continue to see comfort, sight and sound improvements,” said CineLux’s Paul Gunsky. “It’s hard to say what the future will hold for design. Will there be different air-conditioning systems? Will we put seats in differently?
“It’s all a variation of the same business model going back to the ’30s. You bring people together, you put an image on the screen and it’s a shared experience. When it gets down to it, that’s really the basis of what we do: inexpensive, out-of-the-home entertainment where the community comes together. That’s something you cannot replicate in the living room at home. And I’m optimistic that experience will live on.”
‘Kind of the Wild West out there’
That optimism can look a lot like blind faith in some ways. Landmark’s Gerber said neither exhibitors nor studios can count on a traditional summer box-office draw, and, after a disastrous and unpredictable 2020, Landmark at least has given up forecasting on what the industry will look like in 2021.
“We have very little control over what happens next,” she said. “It’s kind of the Wild West out there right now. Everyone is trying new things. The film industry is never going back to exactly the way it was in March 2020.”
One possibility is that theater chains like Landmark and CineLux might begin developing their own streaming services to hold onto audiences who are just not comfortable with, or out of the habit of, going to theaters. Such an approach is already in the works in other countries.
Jensen said it might all come back to the artists, the filmmakers who create the stories that the technology demands. For decades, filmmakers have almost uniformly put their faith in the idea that the big screen was the ideal form on which to make their art.
“If filmmakers start making movies designed for the home screen above all else, that would be a blow,” she said. “People will still want to go to the movies (after the pandemic), and the movies will still be viable. But my gut says, we can’t be sure what form that’s going to take. I hope it’s the big screen.”