When “Godzilla vs. Kong” was released in March in movie theaters and on HBO Max at the same time, theater owners knew it was a test: As the pandemic waned, would patrons come back to the movies?
“We all held our breath with that movie and that was the first sign,” said Mark Malinowski, vice president of Global Marketing for Showcase Cinemas, which has theaters all over the country including the popular SuperLux theater in Chestnut Hill.
The crowds came for the monster movie, he says, and ticket sales for Memorial Day weekend were only about 40% less than 2019, proving that there is an enthusiastic audience of vaccinated movie-goers ready to get back into theaters. The industry is "starting to exhale now," Malinowski told GBH News.
Getting back to normal will be an uphill battle. According to Box Office Mojo, domestic numbers in the weeks since the holiday are still coming in at around 40-45% less than the same weekends in 2019, with top grossers being “A Quiet Place Part II” and “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.”
After a year of shuttered theaters, capacity restrictions and home streaming, local movie theaters have fretted about how their industry would fare as Massachusetts lifts its COVID-19 restrictions. As of now, local theaters say the mood is mostly cautious optimism.
Malinowski said Showcase is confident that “event” movies — sequels and franchises like "F9" and "Black Widow" — will pull people back into theaters this summer after a year of watching movies on the couch. In fact, Showcase is working on a new theater in Hanover to be opened late this year or early next year.
Two higher-end movie theaters in Boston have recently shuttered. The Seaport’s ICON Theatre, which featured gourmet food and an upscale experience, closed in March after three years, citing the economic impact of the pandemic. In April, Boston’s ArcLight Cinema at the TD Garden’s Hub on Causeway, which had opened in November 2019, said it would not re-open because of the national chain’s shutdown.
Matt Martinelli, former editor of the Improper Bostonian, said those closings might have happend even without the pandemic. In the span of a few years, he noted, those two theaters opened along with the AMC in South Bay. Before that, moviegoers in the city already had two options for blockbusters and new releases: the Boston Common AMC and the Fenway Regal.
“That was probably an overexpansion that might have gotten settled one way or another, even if there weren’t COVID,” he said.
Carlos Peraza, who lives in Revere, was at the AMC Boston Common on June 11 to see "A Quiet Place Part II," and said he was excited to be back and experience the horror movie on the big screen.
“It’s the experience,” he said, noting that he felt safe inside the theater because it was not very crowded. “Being in the theater, the big TV, you have your own seat, it’s more comfortable. … It’s a good plan to come out with your friends to the movies and have fun.” That's exactly the response the theater owners are banking on.
Across the river, one theater still holding its breath is the Brattle Theatre, Harvard Square’s cinema that plays classic, foreign and arthouse films. The Brattle will re-open to the general public at the beginning of July, after being closed since March 2020 except for private screenings and some soft openings for members.
While Ned Hinkle, the Brattle’s creative director, says it’s too early to tell how the theater industry will adapt this time around, he’s optimistic that theaters like the Brattle will still have a competitive edge in the post-pandemic landscape.
“The emphasis for the Brattle is always on the theatrical experience,” he said. “What we're offering you is the opportunity to see it, in the case of a film like 'Casablanca,' the way it was meant to be seen.”
Hinkle pointed to the long history of movie theaters in the U.S., noting that the industry has always been threatened by something — radio in the 1930s, world wars, television in the 1960s, home rentals in the 1980s, the 2009 recession — all the way back to the other pandemic in 1918.
“That changed everything about the movie business,” Hinkle said. When independent theaters closed, studios bought them up and created circuits to showcase their own films. From there, the studio system gave rise to the Golden Age of Hollywood after the shakeup of the pandemic.
One big question for movie theaters moving forward is the change around theatrical "windows," the time between when a movie is released in theaters and when it’s available to view at home. Margot Gerber, vice president of marketing and publicity for Landmark Theatres, which runs the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, says the success this month of "A Quiet Place Part II," which had a shortened theatrical window before being available on Paramount+, bodes well for evolving relationships between studios, theaters and streamers.
“I think that the theaters that survive are the ones that are sort of an integral part of the community,” Gerber said.
In Brookline, Katherine Tallman, executive director and CEO of the Coolidge Corner Theatre, says community support was vital in helping the Coolidge weather the pandemic. “The community kept us going,” she said, recalling that throughout the year, donations rolled in from across the country, ranging from $5 to $50,000.
“It could have been an unhappy story,” said Tallman. “We had no idea if people would come back.”
The Coolidge officially reopened to the public on May 13, and hosted its very first screening of a new release, the musical "In The Heights," on June 10. In an interview with GBH News just after the screening, Tallman said she was feeling a sense of relief about the future — ticket sales are exceeding expectations.
Somerville resident Sam Leder was at the Coolidge to see “In The Heights” with her sister Mindy last Thursday. For both, it was their first time back at the movies since before the pandemic.
“I’m excited to return back to the movies to support this movie theater in particular," she said. "I also love this theater. I feel like it’s really special inside.”
Challenges remain. For example, Gerber said the national labor shortage in the hospitality industry is also impacting movie theaters. And there are still concerns that streaming habits developed during the pandemic will keep more people at home.
But the optimists say theaters can co-exist with streaming. “I'm always hopeful that ... people's love for cinema is going to be reinvigorated," said the Brattle Theater's Hinkle.