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Berkeley Theaters Navigate the Lasting Impacts of COVID-19

Even on the slowest days with the worst films, movie theaters would always be filled with people. It’s easy to imagine the lines of visitors filing into showrooms to occupy the leather seats, some straggling behind to buy themselves a snack. Now, hours can pass by in empty silence as theater doors stay open, awaiting the arrival of customers.

The movie theater industry has come under immense pressure over the course of the pandemic; film watchers are less willing to attend live shows, companies are required to enforce COVID-19 safety regulations, and an evolving economy is forcing venues to reevaluate their business tactics.

“I used to go quite a lot [to movie theaters] before quarantine hit,” said Academy of Medicine and Public Service (AMPS) junior Thiana Kouromenos.

Now that people are vaccinated, Kouromenos has started to attend showings again and feels more comfortable because of the screening process. She has had to overcome the fear of being around strangers in a theater, since it felt like too unsafe an option during the pandemic — a common sentiment that has left movie theaters in unfavorable circumstances.

Downtown Berkeley’s California Theater permanently shut its doors in October after 27 years under Landmark Theaters, a chain that also runs the Shattuck Cinemas location. Since it closed during the early stages of the pandemic, the century-old building may have served its last days as a theater, as today’s real estate pressures turn historic structures into living quarters.

Multiple businesses have shut down during the pandemic as rent increases and the demand for housing skyrockets. Plans to develop housing and build from the ground up often erase some of Berkeley’s older charm with them.

An eight-story student housing project is proposed for Harold Way, a plan that could put the Shattuck Cinemas location at risk of being demolished or downsized.

“A lot of these theaters are really struggling and having a hard time paying rent,” said John Caner, the CEO of Downtown Berkeley Associates. “Part of the challenge is some of the older theaters want to stay competitive with other venues.”

The Rialto Cinemas in Elmwood is the longest operating theater in Berkeley, according to its General Manager, Josh Caudle. He explained that the venue has seen a decline in senior customers since the beginning of the pandemic, saying that there are “a lot fewer seniors willing to ‘take the risk’ of going out and about.” Consequently, the theater has shifted its focus largely to younger crowds of people who are more likely to visit the theater.

When the California Theater shut down, so did a regular spot for college students, which Caudle noticed brings some business to Rialto Cinemas. The theater has not raised its prices — though it has lost revenue since the beginning of the pandemic — and has instead extended its student discount policy to attract younger audiences after seeing that other theaters do not offer student discounts. 

As well as competing against other venues, theaters have had competition with streaming platforms, which have grown exceedingly popular over the course of the past couple of years. These platforms sometimes release movies at the same time when they hit theater screens.

Kouromenos said watching a movie in a theater instead of on Netflix serves as an opportunity for spending time outside of her home. She enjoys “the part where you’re getting ready to go out instead of just being in your PJs at home.”

Besides, movie theaters offer an experience unlike the home setup, Caudle said. From 24-foot screens to hot popcorn in a dedicated space without distractions, theaters create an environment where one can enjoy a film away from the daily hustle and bustle.

“Theaters have been going through a really long, hard two years,” Caner said. He continued, “At the same time, we are in a good position for these theaters to recover, for people to get vaccinated and [for] people [to] return to live theater. And there is no substitute for live theater.”

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