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Local audiences are doing their part to make the latest release from a geriatric comedy/action duo Hollywood’s first post-COVID-19 blockbuster.
“Box office-wise, we saw that same success,” said Jeff Ondler, general manager of Marcus Theatres’ Cedar Rapids Cinema.
Released March 31 in the United States, “Godzilla vs. Kong” grossed $70 million domestically through Monday, according to the trade paper Variety. That’s well short of “Avengers: Endgame’s” $357 million April 2019 opening weekend, but enough to fuel theater operators’ hopes audiences are ready to return.
“Some of the folks we saw commented they hadn’t been out in over a year to see a movie, and that was one of the first they saw,” Ondler said. “That was great.
“We continue to hear from our guests that they’re loving the experience, they’re loving to get back out. The cinema screen, the popcorn — that’s the kind of experience we want to give everyone.”
“It’s been very popular,” said Bruce Taylor, owner of Collins Road Theatres at Collins Road Square. “I don’t think this summer’s going to be anything to write home about, but hopefully we’ll break even and be able to exist.”
That was far from a given a year ago. With no vaccine in sight, many wondered if large gatherings in theaters, music venues and sporting events ever would return in large numbers, and push those industries to financial viability.
“What’s become clear over the past year is that people really do want to come back to movie theaters,” said Andrew Sherburne, executive director and co-founder of FilmScene in Iowa City. “They want to get out of the house and get absorbed in the experience.”
“Godzilla vs. Kong” isn’t art-house fare, but even Sherburne is encouraged by its opening.
“’Godzilla’ is not the kind of film we’d want to screen, but the reaction has been strong,” he said. “We’re confident the theater experience is here to stay. It’s a question of (when) we get to that.”
FilmScene, a not-for-profit dedicated to foreign and independent releases, maintains two screens — 67 and 35 seats — at its Ped Mall location and three screens totaling 210 seats at the Chauncey building at College and Gilbert streets, also downtown. It’s still hosting only private screenings as the COVID-19 vaccinations continue to gain ground.
“There’s a lot of factors in our thinking,” Sherburne explained. “We’re a community-centered cinema. It’s not just the bottom line.
“We want to get back to see our community vaccinated and our staff vaccinated.”
The outdoor cinema in Chauncey Swan Park will host the inaugural season of FilmScene in the Park, a partnership with the Iowa City Parks and Recreation Department, this coming Wednesday.
Marcus’s 16-screen Cedar Rapids Cinema reopened the last weekend of August, the five-screen Collins Road Theatre in December. Such precautions as socially distant seating, enhanced sanitizing, and clear plastic barriers at concessions stands remain part of 2021’s moviegoing experience.
“We plan to continue that for the foreseeable future, but we’re looking forward to getting rid of it,” Taylor said.
Collins Road’s online ticket-ordering software automatically calculates the distance between moviegoers and groups, a process Taylor estimated reduces seating by about a third.
“It’s a personal thing,” he said. “Everybody has different health situations but as long as you’re careful and wear a mask and don’t be around anybody who doesn’t wear a mask, you should be all right.”
Marcus Cedar Rapids Cinema has blocked off seating “checkerboard-style,” Ondler noted. “Two seats on, two seats off.” Moviegoers may choose their seats online or at the box office.
“The seats you can select are the only ones that are sellable,” he said. “The remainder are that safety zone.”’
Marcus emphasizes online ordering for popcorn and other concessions. Ondler said customers can schedule their pickup when they arrive at the theater.
“We’d have their last name and have their items ready to go,” Ondler said. “You can avoid those lines, you can have the comfort of ordering from home or from your seat.”
Taylor set aside a single concession station for cash transactions, with clear plastic barriers.
“The cashier has to wash their hands every time they handle cash, which slows it down quite a bit,” he said.
The new procedures also have led to some reassigned work duties, with cashiers rotating through the position.
Cashiers have had to wash their hands “so often they dry out,” Taylor said.
FilmScene continues to host private screenings and its Virtual Screening Room streaming service, and Sherburne said work starts this week on its outdoor amphitheater at the Chauncey.
“Between our virtual content and some other dialog events we’ve hosted through other platforms, we’ve been able to reach over 10,000 folks,” he said. “It’s not the same, but it is a way to stay connected.”
Marcus Cedar Rapids Cinema and Collins Road also host private screenings.
Along with the Cedar Rapids venue, Milwaukee-based Marcus also operates the 12-screen Marcus Sycamore Cinema in Iowa City and Coral Ridge Cinema (10 screens) at the Coral Ridge Mall, which also have reopened.
AMC Theatres said it has reopened 99 percent of its theaters nationwide, but its AMC Classic 12 Westdale in Cedar Rapids remains dark. The Kansas-based chain, the nation’s largest, didn’t respond to inquiries.
AMC Theatres has recorded some $4.4 billion in losses related to the pandemic, according to an April 12 Variety report.
With a new-normal routine in place and prospects for loosened restrictions, there remains one issue confronting theater owners.
“We just need to have some movies to play,” Taylor said. “Hollywood’s not releasing movies.”
The industry is anticipating the much-delayed release of Disney’s “Black Widow,” the latest in the Marvel comic book franchise, now set for theaters July 9 as well as on the studio’s streaming platform that same day.
With pandemic precautions slowing production and many theaters still closed, both Cedar Rapids Cinema and Collins Road have filled their schedules with screenings of older releases.
Restrictions on gatherings in major markets had an effect on what’s released nationwide.
“The studios are obviously watching their bottom line, and up until the last few weeks New York and L.A. have been completely closed down,” Taylor said.
“We’d have a release date, and then those would shift,” Ondler said. “We had to learn to adapt and be able to entice guests to come out.”
Still, theater owners are relieved the pandemic hasn’t claimed moviegoers’ instincts.
“You look at everything that transpired, with things shifting and changing, and it was great to look back at this past year and where we are now,” Ondler said.