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State of cinema: How San Antonio's biggest local theater chain weathered a blockbuster-less summer

Plus, here's what one UTSA expert says about theater safety.

SAN ANTONIO — Movies are back! 

Well, sort of. Like everything in 2020, it’s more complicated than that. 

On the one hand, movies never really went away during the pandemic. So long as you have a screen and Internet access, these quarantimes have provided ample time to catch up on those blind spots, and new films have continued to come out in 2020, even as the major events were delayed, delayed and delayed again amid cinema closures (Summer Blockbuster Season, we hardly knew ye). 

In most states, however, the tail-end of August saw something most of the country hadn’t for months: The box office lights turning back on at some of the nation’s biggest indoor theater chains, including AMC and Cinemark—a gamble at jump-starting the industry timed with the release of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” and a bet that moviegoers will opt to return to public spaces as the novel coronavirus shows little sign of abating for good. 

These theater chains aren’t pretending like COVID-19 isn’t an ongoing reality; visit any of their websites, and you’ll find boldly publicized guidelines about the measures being taken to best keep visitors safe, including social distancing and mask-wearing (when not eating or drinking concessions). Most, if not all, have also reduced auditorium capacity, blocking off every other aisle and putting empty seats between parties. They’re encouraging visitors to buy tickets online ahead of time. They’re discouraging anyone with health issues from visiting. 

Still, the question remains: Exactly how much are we putting ourselves at risk by visiting a theater right now?

“In relative terms, (cinemas) represent less of a risk because the volume is larger,” said Juan Gutierrez, chair of UTSA’s math department, and the architect of one of the models San Antonio Metro Health was using to gauge the pandemic’s local impact earlier this year. 

When Gutierrez mentions “volume,” he’s essentially referring to the amount of air that can fill those huge cinema auditoriums, which allow “for greater dilution of any pathogen that comes in”—including COVID-19. 

That isn’t to say there’s no risk of contracting the coronavirus in a theater. But, for Gutierrez, the increased amount of space for air to break down the virus makes the theater “an inherently less risky environment” than, say, a busy restaurant or bar. He also says the general lack of conversation at the movies means less chance for droplets to expel from our lungs into the air. 

But mitigation efforts, Gutierrez says, are still vital. In running down the list of things he says theaters should do, a familiar anti-coronavirus battle plan emerges. Stay six feet away from other whenever you can. Wear a face covering whenever you can’t. Make sure employees are also wearing masks, along with gloves for those behind the concession counter. Oh, and make sure those masks are covering your noses.  

As more local Cinemarks and AMCs and Regals welcome back customers and reopen their box offices, they’re getting used to those safety measures. But, here in San Antonio, they’ve been part of the routine for some theater employees for months. 

It’s showtime…again

Whatever new considerations most U.S. theatergoers find themselves having to make when deciding whether or not to chance a trip to the movies, residents in the Alamo City have actually had much longer to ponder them. That’s because Santikos, the area’s largest local theater chain, jumped at the opportunity to reopen in limited capacity on May 2—just five days after Gov. Greg Abbott announced Phase 1 of Texas’s reopening guidelines for non-essential businesses.

And it’s been operating ever since, albeit with a fraction of the crowds the company is used to serving. 

“Up until these last couple of weeks, we were just showing old stuff—giving people a safe place to go and get away from the nonsense that we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis with this pandemic,” Santikos CEO Tim Handren said. 

For Handren and his team, preparation for reopening began right when they were initially forced to close in March. Taking their cues from the latest coronavirus guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, Santikos would start with welcoming customers back at only their most spacious facilities – the Palladium and Casa Blanca locations among them – where customers would find markers on the ground reminding them to socially distance, and signage reminding them to, yes, wear a mask while in the lobby (and, preferably, in the auditorium as well when not munching on Junior Mints). Occupancy would be limited, as would the concessions menu. Visitors would be encouraged to buy tickets online beforehand. Sound familiar? 

But signage and stickers are one thing. Manpower is another. And, as the company puts, Santikos would have remained closed if most employees felt uneasy about returning to work during a pandemic. 

“For us to even open back up as early as we did, it wasn’t just like, ‘Hey, we’re going to open because we can,’” said Andrew Brooks, Santikos’s executive director of sales and marketing. “Tim really brought us all into a room and we talked about the policies and procedures; it was all about putting the safety of our employees and community first. He told us, ‘I need you to contact the employees. If they’re not ready to come back, we’re not going to open.’ And everyone got on the horn and started talking to employees and, overwhelmingly, they wanted to come back.”

Handren said a formal meeting was then held in an auditorium where, with ample space separating them, they went over what providing a moviegoing experience during the coronavirus would look like. Not all employees were jumping to return; Handren said some who lived with at-risk parents decided not to. Some others worked another job where they may contract the virus. Others were just a bit wary. 

“And I said, ‘Listen, if you’re uncomfortable, it’s OK if you don’t want to come to work,’” Handren said. “‘We’re not forcing anybody.’”

 Then, they got to work. A video message from the company Santikos’s website assured moviegoers that “our No. 1 goal is to keep our guests and our employees safe.” They started out by showing some of the movies that had maybe been out for a week or two before March’s closure, among them the Vin Diesel comic book actioneer “Bloodshot” and the horror-satire “The Hunt.” And while Cinemark and AMC and Regal remained closed down the street and across the country, Santikos was resurrecting a tiny bit of normalcy from pre-pandemic life, as was EVO Entertainment, which also decided to reopen a couple of its cinemas. 

Customers were returning as well, but with major summer blockbusters delayed and the threat of coronavirus still lingering at a time when there were many unknowns about it, they returned in small numbers. According to Handren and Brooks, “a little over 170,000 people” had come to their theaters between May 2 and when I spoke to them at the end of August. In a normal summer, that number is “well over 2 million.” 

That wasn’t a concern for the company, which says it was more eager to provide a distraction than bring in revenue. 

“Make no mistake about it, we lost money during this time. When you don’t have your normal crowds coming in, we weren’t making money,” Handren said. “But we were losing money slower (than other major theaters).”

He attributed that to Santikos having a “strong balance sheet” heading into 2020, which was evident in the company’s recent expansion and makeovers. It also helped, he said, that Santikos owned its theaters, and thus wasn’t locked into paying rent like other companies do. Handren also said his prior experience with USAA came in handy when it came to something “no one was prepared for, in any form or fashion.” 

“Handling crises is not uncomfortable for me,” Handren said. 

And “crisis” would be selling COVID-19 short. Still, the company’s early reopening, safety plan and weathering of that crisis apparently garnered Santikos attention beyond San Antonio. According to Handren, not only would their plan become the template for the “CinemaSafe” program pioneered by the National Association of Theater Owners; it would also grab Hollywood’s attention. 

“I had several of the studios reach out to me who wanted to talk to me about what was going on at Santikos,” Handren said. “Our COO has grown up in this business, he’s been doing this for decade. I was like, ‘Why is the president of, like, Warner Brothers calling me? Is that normal?’ And he says, ‘No!’”

Their own side of the movie industry mired in a strange and uncertain moment, three studios apparently contacted Handren, who turned the opportunity into “established relationships” of a kind that movie theater companies don’t typically have, to say nothing of having them with a local chain like Santikos. 

It allowed Handren to have a head-start of sorts on updated distribution plans for movies that kept getting pushed back, including “Tenet”—the closest thing to a crown jewel that the movie industry had pinned on the calendar going into 2020. In a decade when the only movies consistently bringing huge crowds to theaters were comic book adventures – especially those featuring Iron Man, Captain America and the rest of the Marvel gang – Nolan’s original films consistently prove the exception to the rule. 2006 was the last time a film he directed didn’t bring in at least $188 million domestically, and usually that figure was much, much higher. 

Combine that with the fact many of the summer’s smaller movies were springing for video on demand, as well as Nolan’s reputable passion for upholding the theater experience and oft-reported position of particular power in the industry, and you can understand why Santikos knowing Warner Brothers’s latest plans for “Tenet” before most anyone else would be an advantage. Their relationship was proving fruitful. 

“To the point where Warner Brothers was telling me what they were going to do with ‘Tenet’ before they did press releases,” Handren said. “And that was helping me with how to plan for my business, too.”

On the Saturday morning I spoke with Handren and Brooks, Santikos was enjoying its biggest bevy of new releases in months, including “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” “The New Mutants” and the trilogy-capping “Bill & Ted Face the Music.” “Tenet” would be scheduled to release a week later – about two months later than originally scheduled – in states where indoor theaters were allowed to operate, after an initial rollout in overseas markets. It would also be released when the coronavirus is still a major threat, with local leaders warning San Antonio on a daily basis to keep up their guard. 

Handren said he expected “Tenet’s” long-awaited release would bring bigger crowds than the company had seen since the spring. And he said it’s because of the movie’s distributor that the industry is able to attempt a large-scale restart at this point at all. 

“We view Warner Brothers as the hero of the industry,” Handren said. “They’re our Superman and our Wonder Woman right now, because they held the date for ‘Tenet,’ and that’s what’s driving everything else right now. 

“In a normal situation, ‘Tenet’ would be a billion-dollar movie. But Warner Brothers has said, ‘You know what, we need to kick-start the industry, and we’re going to hold this date. And even if we don’t make as much money as we normally would, we want the industry to get back into business.’ So I view Warner Brothers as the hero of the industry.” 

A different, resurrected experience 

Even if people choose to go to the theater now to seek a distraction, it’s hard to overlook evidence that we’re still in a pandemic—one that has so far claimed the lives of nearly 188,000 in the U.S., and more than 870 in Bexar County.

On a trip to one of Santikos’s biggest theaters on a recent quiet Monday afternoon, that evidence was clear as soon as I walked in the door with my mask on, social distancing blinders up, ticket already purchased. Per the company’s safety plan, an employee was sitting at the front of the lobby, waving me over. He asked if I’d experienced coronavirus symptoms, or if anyone close to me had. 

The answer, thankfully, was no to both, although it’s easy to imagine customers saying ‘No’ if they started the morning with a fever or itchy throat. Gutierrez has the same suspicion. 

“Asking people (if they’ve experienced symptoms) in principle sounds like a good idea because you assume people are going to answer honestly. In practice, we know people tend not to answer honestly,” he said. “If somebody made plans for an evening, they’re not going to sacrifice that even if they have been exposed. That’s just human nature. So that is ineffective.”

What Gutierrez said he’d rather see at venues like theaters is someone checking the temperature (sans contact) at the door. Santikos, for their part, says it’s been doing that for its employees on a daily basis. 

The rest of the experience largely aligned with the measures the UTSA professor said theaters should take up; the signs are everywhere, literally. Security tape deters visitors from using the water fountain. Signs on doors remind you to have your mask on. Glove dispensers sat at the entrance to self-serve areas, and, by the looks of it, were also being worn by employees handing out popcorn. Handren said it has prioritized its bigger facilities as ones that would reopen early, and the amount of space was evident here; I didn’t have to make much of an effort to stay six feet away from the few other moviegoers in the Palladium’s huge lobby. And, a few hours later, after emerging from a (mostly empty) auditorium, an employee was at the ready to disinfect, another major cog in the coronavirus safety blueprint.  

Months later, it seemed, safety was still being enforced by the company. In fact, Handren said that, back in June they made sure enforcement was one person’s job; they added so-called “safety champions” who would walk around the cinema (“We have one in every theater at all times”) to ensure employees were following protocol and visitors were following guidelines. 

At the same time, there was a local option that involved much less walking around for visitors. Folks who were craving the big-screen experience over the summer but were still wary of returning to an indoor theater could head up I-35, where the Stars and Stripes theater in New Braunfels has been providing a retro experience since 2015. 

Stars and Stripes, too, was forced to close down with other non-essential Texas businesses in March. But they where just as ready as Santikos to welcome back families when Abbott gave the green-light a few weeks later. 

“We felt like the drive-in was the perfect place for social distancing and to be able to watch a movie, enjoy getting out of the house,” said Ryan Smith, co-owner of the drive-in. “We just needed a little bit of time to figure out what this whole situation really was.” 

As with Santikos (and virtually every other business), that meant adding a couple things to employees’ to-do lists, even if there’s less minute-to-minute interaction between them and guests. Disinfection of surfaces and bathrooms became a higher priority. Social distancing was emphasized at the café. Temperature checks began to be taken at the start of every shift. And, as with Santikos, Stars and Stripes was off to the races in May. 

The drive-in has been open ever since, showing mostly family favorites and classics like “Gremlins,” “The Goonies” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” across its three screens under the stars. And while Stars and Stripes is an outdoor experience – hence, no requirement to reduce capacity – Smith said they took the initiative to block off every other parking spot to provide families with peace of mind as they set up outside with lawn chairs. 

And while capacity has been reduced all summer, Smith said they’ve sold out every Friday and Saturday night screening over the summer—an indication of a national resurrection for the drive-in theater business during the pandemic. (Handren, for the record, says Santikos never seriously considered erecting DIY drive-ins at its massive parking lots.)

Credit: KENS

“People have rediscovered the drive-in and our fans have continued coming out and supporting us, even with not having any new movies through the summer,” Smith said, adding that the delay of new releases meant cashing on nostalgia, which he found to be an enduring commodity. 

“One thing we’ve learned is that if you don’t have new movies, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A great story, even if someone has seen it a number of times before, or maybe it’s their favorite movie, they may not have ever seen it at a drive-in theater under the stars. And that’s a completely new experience.”

It’s an experience that more closely mirrors the pre-pandemic experience too. At a mid-August showing of “Jaws” at Stars and Stripes, the biggest indication of these extraordinary times were the masks being worn by most families walking around and the reduced-capacity lots. Unsurprisingly, the lot was still packed. A Spielberg classic on the big-screen from the safety of one’s car (or truck bed) is one constant that even COVID-19 couldn’t upend on this night. 

Preparing for what’s next

While both Handren and Smith weathered the storm of new film releases coming at a trickle in 2020, they both know the future of the moviegoing – whatever it looks like in the age of Netflix and streaming – is dependent on how the theater industry can respond to the coronavirus. 

To that end, Santikos at the end of July sent a message to members of its rewards program, at a time when “Santikos will be supremely challenged to survive” until “the pandemic settles down.” The email encourages rewards members to reach out to their congressional representatives to tell them “you want them to take action to help us,” as part of a #SaveYourCinema initiative undertaken by NATO. 

Later on that day, Brooks clarified that Santikos was in a better place than most theater companies, and that their participation in the initiative was to “try and help the whole cinema industry across the country.” As reported by The Hollywood Reporter, the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by Congress and signed off by President Donald Trump in March included more than $450 billion meant to help “distressed businesses pay their fixed costs a time when no revenue is coming in.”

Progress on a second relief package has since stalled, and the movie release calendar remains murky for the rest of the year—even with “Tenet” and other major films coming out once again. If there’s one thing 2020 has shown, it’s that things can change in a flash, and theaters have had to remain as flexible as anyone. 

And that’s without considering how comfortable some movie fans may have gotten in recent months with the idea of watching movies from their living rooms, where they can bring their own food and pause whenever they need to use the restroom, let alone refrain from worrying about how much more a ticket will cost. (In 2019, the average price for a ticket in North America was $9.16, up from $7.50 a decade prior.)

“I know it’s going to change,” Handren said, referring to the future of moviegoing. “How it changes, I don’t know. You can also take the other side of it where people are sick and tired of being home, and it may be more (of them). And, by the way, with the numbers of movies that have been delayed because of this…next year may potentially be the biggest year the industry has ever seen.”

And in case one would think that drive-in theaters would consider indoor cinemas competition, Smith said he’s also looking forward to when things return closer to normal for those theater chains. 

“We definitely need the indoor theaters open and doing well, and Santikos runs a great business,” he said. “We all are passionate about giving people a fun way to get out of the house and enjoy the art of storytelling and the movie aspect. We need them open and doing well for the studios to be confident to release new movies; in that regard, we’re all trying to support each other.”