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‘Reopening Is Going to Be a Process:’ Local Theaters Struggle During Pandemic


After watching the biggest movies of the year from their living rooms, or snagging a ticket to one of the few local drive-ins, — all for movies whose releases haven’t been delayed — theater-goers can finally enjoy the in-person theater experiences they haven’t had access to for the past year. 

Local and national theaters have been hurt by the pandemic and continuously pushed back release schedules, along with the constant rise of streaming services. 

According to Ky Boyd, Director at the Rialto Cinemas, a combination of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans, along with their GoFundMe, has kept them afloat. “We’ve had people give us anywhere from five dollars to one thousand dollars,” said Boyd. “It’s really been heartwarming to see those comments, and it keeps us going.”

The theater has also been trying creative solutions, such as virtual cinema — where customers can pay the theater to watch movies at home — and popcorn pick-ups once a week. 

Rialto Cinemas, along with many other theaters, has not yet chosen to reopen, despite the fact that theaters are now allowed to operate under Alameda County’s safety guidelines. Of all the theaters in Berkeley, only one is currently open for in-person movie-watching: Shattuck Cinemas. Many of its customers were eager to share with the Jacket their excitement about the return to theaters. 

As to why theater-goers chose to watch movies in-person, especially given that most are available immediately on streaming services, many felt that it was safe or worth the risk, especially if they had been vaccinated. 

Lawrence Carter-Long, who saw Godzilla vs. King Kong, felt that the movie specifically warranted a theater experience. “If anyone knows the history of giant monster movies, which I grew up on, to get the complete experience, it needs to be big. The screen needs to be big, the sound needs to be big, the experience needs to be big,” he said. Carter-Long is fully vaccinated, a fact which contributed to his sense of safety. 

Given that the theater just recently opened, and is not yet very crowded, many attendees felt extremely safe, whether they had already been fully vaccinated or felt reassured by the social distancing, mask mandates, and various other safety precautions. 

“I was just glad to be able to come back and see a film and enjoy the theater and everything. And they keep it safe and sanity considering the conditions and everything,” said Steven John, who also saw Godzilla vs. Kong

Rialto Cinemas will be following the CinemaSafe protocols, which require social distancing, regular sanitation, and other mandates. 

Making the choice to reopen, however, is a tough one. At Rialto Cinemas, there are many factors in the decision-making process. Boyd said, “We’re looking not only at case numbers but also at what’s out there in terms of film product, because we don’t want to open up and then have things to show for a week or two and then go ‘oh there’s nothing else to show, let’s shut down again.’” 

The theater has also been surveying their customers through their website, and determining what would make people feel safest in a theater, along with what types of content are most appealing. Boyd discovered that vaccination, both on a personal and community-wide level, were what made people feel the most comfortable returning to theaters. Another surprising result of the survey was that, when asked about the idea of doing more private screenings or possibly renting out a theater for a group of people, customers were not extremely interested, suggesting a desire to return to the pre-pandemic communal theater experience. 

The theater, along with many others, is still looking forward to the reopening process, no matter when it comes. “Shutting down was a process and reopening is going to be a process,” said Boyd.