Bay Area movie theaters hope to lure people back this summer. Can they? – SF Chronicle Datebook

Bay Area movie theaters hope to lure people back this summer. Can they? – SF Chronicle Datebook

As summer movie season begins, a blockbuster question looms: Will movie attendance finally return to pre-pandemic levels?
And underlying this are darker questions: Will movie attendance ever return to the old normal? Are some audiences lost forever, or at least for the foreseeable future? And how will this impact the Bay Area in particular, with its long and vibrant history of independent theaters?
Local independent theater owners have been rethinking the cinema experience to draw filmgoers in, including adding more community and participatory events. Meanwhile, multiplex chains have invested in technological advances and updated filtration systems to help COVID-19-fearing patrons feel a little safer.
Now, more than two years into the pandemic, according to Adam Bergeron, who owns and operates the Balboa Theater, movies are “100% back” — especially since the release of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” on April 1, which kick-started a run of increased box office at the Richmond District theater. The sci-fi action film starring Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan “has for us been like an ‘Avengers’ or a ‘Star Wars’ movie,” he said.
The corporate-owned multiplex world agrees.
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Chanda Brashears, a senior vice president for Cinemark Theatres, which has 320 Cinemark and Century theaters across North America, including 30 in the Bay Area, told The Chronicle in a call from the company’s headquarters in Plano, Texas, that “many of the films are performing on a par with what our expectations would have been pre-pandemic.”
“The quality of films is certainly there,” she added, though noting “there’s certainly a little less quantity in the current environment.”
The recent megahit “The Batman” (more than $350 million at the domestic box office) and current blockbuster “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” ($350 million and counting) were some of the films Brashears had in mind. And quantity is on the way: “Top Gun: Maverick,” which opens Friday, May 27, and “Jurassic World Dominion,” “Lightyear” (from Emeryville’s Pixar Animation Studios) and Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” are among a robust summer slate.
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This state of affairs constitutes a major improvement over earlier days of the pandemic, when quantity and quality were dual problems. Big chains such as AMC Theatres and Cinemark were able to reopen in the fall of 2020 and ride out the pandemic, willing to operate in the red as a small group of hard-core moviegoers trickled back to see films that in many cases were also available to stream. But smaller theaters in the Bay Area, many of which waited to reopen until May 2021, faced months and months of struggle.
Frank Lee, co-owner of Lee Neighborhood Theaters, which owns and operates the Presidio and the Marina in San Francisco, said that in 2021, “the films weren’t that great. We did sporadically well, with ‘A Quiet Place (Part II)’ and ‘Shang-Chi (and the Legend of the Ten Rings),’ but you can’t survive on one film for three or four months.”
The problem then was that the kind of movies people like to see in theaters — blockbusters that need the big screen and surround sound — were few and far between, because distributors were saving those sure moneymakers for less pandemic-ridden times. “Top Gun: Maverick” is finally hitting theaters after its release was delayed several times over the past two years for exactly that reason (and movie critics agree it benefits from being seen in theaters such as Imax).
“We did a Disney movie, ‘Jungle Cruise,’ which would normally bring out the families,” Bergeron said of the July 2021 release, “and it was just nothing.”
The reason is no mystery: “Jungle Cruise,” a $200 million-plus movie that barely cleared half that amount at the North American box office, was simultaneously released, at a premium price, on the Disney+ streaming service.
But Brashears points to some encouraging signs, such as families coming back for the live-action “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” ($180 million and counting), and Dreamworks Animation feature “The Bad Guys” ($75 million and counting). But other theaters aren’t seeing any real movement yet for such family-friendly films. Bergeron, who also operates the Vogue, which caters to an older, art house crowd, said that his audience “has been pretty slow to come back.”
Case in point, “Downton Abbey: A New Era” — widely considered a harbinger for the return of mature audiences — averaged about 30 moviegoers per screening during its opening weekend at the Vogue, which seats up to 220. Bergeron called that “pretty much right in line with expectations.”
Nationally, the continuation of the 2019 film and 2010-16 television series took in $16 million from 3,815 screens (by comparison, the 2019 film opened at $31 million). This is considered a hopeful result. According to cinema tracking services, 48% of the “New Era” ticket buyers were 55 or older, and 73% were female — much bigger numbers for both demographics than the usual film that opens No. 2 at the box office.
Both demographics are represented by Chris Pollak, Lora Buechler and Marisa Vondich (they did not provide their age for publication). The three friends decided on a trip to the Vogue on a recent Sunday afternoon because of their passion for the “Downton Abbey” franchise, they said. It was their first in-theater experience since before the pandemic.
“I watch so much at home, because it’s easy to do,” Buechler said, “but sometimes seeing a movie like ‘Downton Abbey’ with all the majesty, the cinematography, the locations, it’s better in a theater.”
Pollak agrees and added that she feels more comfortable now then earlier in the pandemic.
“It’s a small community theater, and that makes a difference,” Pollak explained. “I want these theaters to stay in business too.”
Older viewers have been slow to come back to the Roxie as well. Pre-pandemic, their audience was “all over the place,” said Isabel Fondevila, the Mission District indie theater’s director of programming. Now she reports “we’re skewing younger, definitely.”
This is reflected in the local box office. “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” a success in other parts of the country, is a monster in the Bay Area. But it’s still a movie that appeals to a younger audience. So are most others that have done well here — “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “The Batman,” “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.”
To capitalize on the momentum, theaters have worked to come up with ways to allay the fears of reluctant moviegoers. Cinemark, for instance, has revamped all its auditoriums with advanced air-filtration systems.
Brashears cites consumer data from the National Research Group, which shows that 85% of moviegoers report that they’re very or somewhat comfortable going to the movies.
“I think that number grows if you look even one month from now,” she said.
But Brashears acknowledges the 15% of moviegoers who don’t feel comfortable enough to go back to indoor movie theaters.
“It’s hard to really determine what it’s going to take to get those moviegoers back in theaters,” she said.
That would be movie fans such as Diana Tran Nguyen, 26, a Richmond District resident who works in the hospitality industry.
Before the pandemic, Nguyen, who was a subscriber of the now-defunct ticketing service MoviePass, estimated that she went to the movies about four times a month. She has yet to return to the theaters.
During the pandemic, Nguyen worked long hours at a restaurant offering takeout and outdoor dining and got into the habit of watching movies on streaming services. Since then, “life got in the way, and I haven’t really had time to go to the theaters.”
That kind of sentiment — coupled with 26 months (and counting) of uncertainty due to the pandemic — is what is effecting theaters, experts say. Already Landmark’s Embarcadero Cinema and Cinemark’s Empire in West Portal have closed, with Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley the latest casualty. Even the beloved Castro Theatre will no longer have nonstop specialty film programming.
“It’s been crisis level,” said Rick Norris, the Roxie’s theater programmer.
To that end, movie theater owners and executives are rethinking the theater experience for another generation. Instead of an older audience that might never return, they’re concentrating on the younger demographic — from late teens to early 30s — that has largely remained loyal.
Chains are investing in big-screen technology such as Imax, 4DX and other formats. Brashears said Cinemark’s XD screens, a large-format theater with state-of-the-art surround sound and digital projection technology, account for 4% of its screens but 15% of its box office. Films such as “Top Gun: Maverick” push the envelope of that technology.
That keeps longtime movie fan Robert Dyogi in the fold. The Sunset District resident saw “Doctor Strange” for a second time last weekend, opting this time to see the film at the Regal Stonestown Galleria’s 4DX screen, a technology in which seats move with the action and the audience experiences effects such as wind, fog and scents.
Dyogi, 46, is the dream moviegoer to studios — someone who went to movies as a child and has never broken the habit. During the pandemic, he logged long hours working at a local Safeway and watched movies on cable and on demand. He said he couldn’t wait to get back to the theaters and was among the first wave to return in 2021. He keeps a list, which shows he’s been to theaters 31 times since May 2021.
“I like to be part of a crowd watching those big movies,” Dyogi said. “Big movies, snacks and (technology such as) 4DX make you feel like you’re a part of the movie.”
Locally, the Alamo Drafthouse’s New Mission theater had already made a name for itself with food and alcohol service before the pandemic. Lee plans to expand food and beverage service at the Marina.
At the Balboa, Bergeron has included extra activities and perks geared to that target audience, from trivia contests to raffles and other things that make it “a little more than a movie.”
In just the past month the Balboa drew big numbers for screening all five films in the “Twilight” series. The highlight was May 15, when a screening of “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” (2010) was interrupted by an intermission so moviegoers could spill out onto the sidewalk and watch an actual lunar eclipse.
Then on Saturday, May 21, the Balboa sold out a screening of the locally produced documentary “Tell Them We Were Here,” which profiles eight Bay Area artists and was preceded by a live performance by San Francisco indie folk band Vetiver.
Lex Sloan, executive director of the Roxie, is thinking along the same lines. The theater has new seats, installed in January, and a new air conditioning system.
“Our audience skewing younger might pose a challenge, but it also opens up a world of opportunities,” Sloan said. The theater is “adding more live elements to our screenings — whether drag performance or dance or live music, and definitely artist Q&A’s — so that rather than coming to the movies, you’re coming for an event experience.”
This could be a reinvention blending live and film elements, a version of the old stage shows that once accompanied movies from the 1920s through ’40s, but this time spurred by the pandemic and geared to the sensibility of the Bay Area’s rising generation.
“How San Francisco it is,” noted Sloan, “where you don’t really know what’s going to happen, and it’s a memorable night at the movies.”
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