‘Communal experience’ of movie theaters returns in Colorado

With theaters open and without government limits, struggling industry gets reprieve

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After long stretches of staying closed amid the coronavirus pandemic, the nation’s major movie theater chains reopened locations in recent months. And with capacity restrictions on businesses now lifted around the Denver metro area, the traditional moviegoing experience appears to be on its way to a full return.

It’s a change that could help people’s “reintegration” into socializing, said Vincent Piturro, a professor of film and media studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

“If you haven’t seen friends in a year and a half: ‘Hey, let’s see a movie.’ It’s a sort of a soft landing for socialization,” Piturro said.

The Regal and Cinemark theater chains have reopened locations in Colorado, and nearly all of AMC’s Denver-area theatres reopened at the end of 2020 or in the first few weeks of this year. Those AMC theaters had closed in March 2020.

“I believe most or all reopened for a period of time in the summer and fall of 2020 and then closed again in accordance with local directives,” said Ryan Noonan, a spokesperson for AMC Theatres.

As of May 16 this year, several Denver metro counties are now operating in what they call “level clear,” generally with no local restrictions — and that’s likely to continue unless things take a turn for the worse. Some counties, such as Douglas, had already been living under no local restrictions.

AMC theater capacities are still slightly reduced, with ticketing systems blocking the spots on either side of a party’s seating — but aside from that small precaution, the theaters may remind crowds of how moviegoing felt before the pandemic.

Seeing movies again may serve as a “boon to our psyches” on the way to returning to normalcy, Piturro said.

“We’ve gone to movies our whole lives — we may not have gone to bars our whole lives or certain restaurants our whole lives,” but movies were a constant presence, Piturro said.

‘You can’t duplicate that at home’

The return of in-person movies comes as a relief to an industry that took a big hit amid the pandemic, but it doesn’t mean theaters’ troubles are over.

“It’s one of those things where we have to step back and ask ourselves: How was the industry doing prior to the pandemic?” said Darrin Duber-Smith, an expert on marketing at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Streaming services, such as Netflix and Disney+, had served as competition for theaters long before the pandemic, Piturro said. Theater attendance was declining for several years before COVID-19, Piturro and Duber-Smith pointed out.

Fighting to adapt, theaters have made changes in recent years such as adding more-comfortable chairs and serving alcohol and higher-end food — trying to “increase the luxury,” Duber-Smith said.

One feature that “really took off during the past year” is AMC’s private theater rentals, said Noonan, the AMC spokesperson. That’s a program that allows customers to reserve an entire auditorium for a private party of up to 20 people.

“The moviegoing experience is just that: It’s an experience. It’s going out. It’s an event. You can’t duplicate that at home,” Piturro said, pointing to the “oohs and ahhs” and “the communal experience.”

‘Will they go out?’

In the long term, though, the pandemic may serve as “a nail in the coffin” for the theater industry in its current form, Duber-Smith said.

Amid changing consumer habits, he’s expecting a “bailout,” where movie-production companies will “vertically integrate” by buying out theaters, keeping them running so movie producers can still profit from them.

“Is (the industry) going to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels? I don’t think so,” Duber-Smith said, adding that even the pre-pandemic level of activity wasn’t adequate.

Piturro, the film professor, takes a more optimistic view, arguing that movies aren’t going to have to compete with online services but, rather, will compete with other forms of in-person entertainment such as baseball games or the opera.

“I see younger crowds (likely) going to the movies in record numbers and the older crowd, without kids, going back to the theaters as well, especially whose kids have left the home,” Piturro said. “The wild-card is the middle-age demographic: those with kids at home. Will they go out to the movies? They were the group that stayed home in bigger numbers in the pre-COVID years. This is the group that we are unsure about, and this is the group that other entertainment venues will vie for.

“Still, either way, I see a positive trend in moviegoing in the near future,” Piturro said, noting that “the long-term prospects are a bit cloudier.”

Piturro envisions theater crowds having a “spillover effect,” bringing more patrons to nearby bars and restaurants before or after they attend a movie.

“I think that’s healthy for the overall economy,” Piturro said.

Duber-Smith expressed skepticism about whether increased numbers of theater patrons will help shopping centers to rebound, though. He expects the theater industry itself to shrink although some theaters may expand.

“Overall, I think you’re going to see a reduction in the number of movie theaters,” Duber-Smith said.

People won’t fully return to movie theaters in the next few months, Piturro expects. He noted his own concerns about COVID-19 even though he’s been fully vaccinated for several months.

“It’s my job to watch movies for a living, and I haven’t been to a theater yet,” Piturro said, noting fears of virus variants. “I’m planning to come back to theaters in the fall for sure.”

For now, he’s anticipating delving back into that environment.

“For me, there’s nothing better than sitting in a dark theater … getting lost in a world for 2 1/2 hours is really one of the great experiences for me,” Piturro said.

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