It is back to the past and future for movie theaters.
Theaters today have to "show people that it's more than just sitting at home and watching a movie," said Rich Gill, former assistant lead manager of the Uptown Theatre, which lost its lease earlier this month over unpaid rent. He's now received messages from people who saw "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" there in the 1970s, remembering going out dressed in costume and with toast in hand. Gill, who has been 18 years in the movie business, said multiplexes coming out of the pandemic and facing competition from streaming services have to make moviegoing "an event."
As the mix of a record summer heat wave, rising state vaccination rates and much anticipated new movies bring Minnesotans back to the cinema, Twin Cities theaters embrace their return.
Horror sequels and superhero movies are among the crowd-pleasers hitting the big screen. "A Quiet Place Part II," which opened Memorial Day weekend, became the first film this week to surpass $100 million at the U.S. box office since the start of the pandemic. Marvel's "Black Widow," which will debut in theaters and on Disney Plus on July 9, also is expected to attract big numbers.
Fandango surveyed more than 1,300 people planning to see the musical "In the Heights" before it opened last week and found that 96% said it would be their first time returning to the theaters after the pandemic. The company also found out of 4,000 of its May ticket buyers, 87% felt safe going to theaters and that their moviegoing experience couldn't be duplicated at home.
At Riverview Theater in south Minneapolis, "it's kind of like home" for 74-year-old Alan Jesperson. He's been going to the theater for 40 years and bought to-go popcorn from its window when it was closed for showings last year.
"It's more fun to watch a movie with other people in the room," Jesperson said, sitting in the theater before Riverview's first showing of "In the Heights," the adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway musical.
A few seats away was Bobbi Siver, 62, sitting maskless with daughter, Danielle Siver, 38. Visiting from Waukegan, Ill., it was the senior Siver's first time back in a movie theater since the pandemic. It felt "more normal than you can believe it," she said.
But behind the ticket counter, it's been different every weekend since the theater reopened on May 28, said Katie Holmes, who's worked there for 14 years. She's now directing people to assigned seating since some chairs are blocked off for distancing, getting used to a digital ticketing system, "encouraging" masks rather than requiring them and selling tickets for first-run flicks instead of Riverview's prepandemic second-run showings.
"I've been telling people, 'Yeah, typically, we would run movies that are three or four months old, but four months ago, nothing came out,'" Holmes said.
'Not going anywhere'
As with many return-to-normals from COVID-19, moviegoing doesn't come back without some grief of what was lost during the pandemic.
Out in New York, Erik Davis, managing editor of Fandango, was bummed to hear about the closure of the Uptown Theatre, which he'd frequent along with now-shuttered Chino Latino when he lived in downtown Minneapolis in the early 2000s.
"There is this loss that's being felt and not just with movie theaters but just with all sort of local, locally owned sort of establishments that have had to shutter," he said. "But I definitely think that there is opportunity, especially as all of these films are beginning to come back and they will be back into next year, I think there's opportunity to sort of rediscover and bring back some of these local institutions."
In the Twin Cities, theaters like Uptown, the Edina Cinema and Mann's Hopkins Cinema 6 closed for good amid COVID-19.
"I honestly believed this place would close," said manager Luke Schertler, 24, sitting in the office of Mann's Grandview Theatre, which has been open in St. Paul since the 1930s.
One of his favorite parts about the job is it's been the same for decades, he said.
"When COVID hit, there was almost a fear that things were going to really change," Schertler added.
He was worried that it would be a new staff, or worse, there won't be enough staff members. He also was concerned that people might not come back to the theaters and competition from streaming services could kill the movie theater culture.
Yet after reopening on May 14, everything's gone better than Schertler thought it would. For the most part, people of all ages seem comfortable coming back to the theater (masked or unmasked, distanced or not), ticket sales aren't that bad and it feels like everyone "missed movies more than anyone realized."
And despite closing second-run Hopkins 6, the only theater whose real estate her chain didn't own, Michelle Mann doesn't feel like things such as streaming are a threat.
"You want to go out for a date? Are you going to do it at your house in your family room? No, you're going to go to a movie and dinner," said Mann, adding later, "we're not going anywhere."
Inside the Grandview, Graham Martin and his wife were out to see "In the Heights" after dropping their daughter off with a babysitter for the first time since the pandemic. Having been vaccinated, they felt safe maskless in the theater around others.
"We've already bumped into two different sets of people that we know from the neighborhood that we wouldn't see otherwise," Martin said. "So I mean, first of all, it's just good to be around people. And secondly, that it's a community center of some sort for us. It's great."
Getting out of the house
The couple are not alone. Other regular moviegoers echo that sentiment, too.
Cinephile Alec Felton, 25, from Uptown went to see "A Quiet Place Part II" twice last weekend, once with friends and once with his girlfriend at AMC Southdale 16 in Edina.
"It's a tragedy we lost some of the smaller theaters, but thankfully some of the bigger chains are still around so we're able to do this right now," Felton said.
Brigitte Bjorklund from Medina and Kristin Pederson from St. Paul, both 53, were happy Showplace Icon Theatres in St. Louis Park was open to see "In the Heights" because it's a regular halfway point for the pair to meet.
"That was good news," Bjorklund said.
On Saturday night in Uptown outside of Lagoon Cinema, there was a street musician playing, a wedding party passing by and the Williams family was standing waiting to see Disney's "Cruella."
Donning a mask, Garrett Williams, 10, felt safe going to see the film.
"Also, I like going to the theaters," he added.
As for former theater manager Gill, he's still remaining COVID-cautious so it's going to be awhile before he sees a movie again. But he supports moviegoers who are returning.
His advice for them? "Buy concessions."