CAMAS — Here’s the plot twist movie lovers never expected: Clark County’s struggling independent cinemas are reopening their doors while industry behemoth Regal has gone officially dark until further notice. Also reopening hundreds of cinemas across the nation, including two in Vancouver, is AMC Entertainment, the world’s largest theater operator.
Returning to the movies won’t feel routine. According to Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent update of pandemic guidelines, cinemas in counties like Clark that are in the second phase of reopening may operate at only 25 percent of capacity.
The new normal will be advance ticket sales online, “touchless” business at the box office, reserved seating, alternate blocked-off rows and space buffers between groups. Temperature-checked staffers will sanitize lobbies, auditoriums and bathroom surfaces in between screenings. Some theaters have installed new high-tech air filters.
“The theater is now completely set up for reserved seating,” said Rand Thornsley of Camas’ independent Liberty Theatre, which welcomed 75 moviegoers Friday to its 350-seat main auditorium. The Liberty’s Granada Studio, a smaller room with 29 stadium seats, will only be used for private viewings by households of seven people or fewer.
Thornsley was happily busy in the box office the afternoon of Oct. 9, reviewing the new procedures one by one with masked-up patrons who formed a long, slow-moving line on the sidewalk. To celebrate reopening day, Thornsley programmed a local cult classic and a beloved sci-fi adventure: “The Goonies,” which takes place in Astoria, Ore., and “The Empire Strikes Back,” which takes place in space.
Why mask up and go to a movie theater when you can screen just about anything at home and know you’re safe?
“The noise, the vibrations — you’re up close. It’ so big,” said Anna Presley, who traveled from Ridgefield with Joe Costa and Lucas Kellum, all wearing scary “Goonies” masks for their first movie-theater fun in months.
“It feels so good to come and support the Liberty. It’s the heart of downtown,” said passerby Rae Clausen, adding that she’d be back with her two daughters for an upcoming screening of “Hocus Pocus.”
The same reliable mix of regional interest and sci-fi wonder is also headed for Vancouver’s independent Kiggins Theatre. Owner Dan Wyatt will welcome patrons back on Friday with his personal favorite film, the time-travel comedy “Back to the Future.” Also showing is the new release “The Dark Divide,” a soulful story about the real adventures of a Southwest Washington butterfly and Bigfoot hunter in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
The Kiggins will seat a maximum of 80 people, according to events and operations coordinator Laine Keniston. Like the Liberty, the Kiggins will revert back to making its outdoor box office the first point of contact for all patrons. Indoors, lobby concession sales have been moved farther away from the pathway into the auditorium, so there’s more breathing room for everyone, Keniston said. The upstairs lounge is closed.
There’ll be more time between screenings to sanitize the auditorium, Wyatt said, including removing and replacing new washable seat covers.
“I’m happy and I’m relieved and I’m a little nervous,” said Wyatt, who added that he, Thornsley and other local theater owners lobbied Inslee’s office with proposals for reopening safely. “It adds a level of stress. It’s not just business as usual. It’s all the normal stuff plus the safety elements. We want to be sure we’re doing this right.”
Battle Ground Cinema, a locally owned multiplex that shows mainstream Hollywood fare, also reopened last weekend.
According to industry news source Cinema Blend, AMC decided to reopen after striking a deal with Universal Studios to get a bite of Universal’s revenue for streaming new film releases on demand. That happened after AMC played hardball with Universal earlier this year, threatening to drop its films altogether. The new deal provides sufficient cushion for AMC that it decided to reopen theater doors and show the few new movie releases that are already in the pipeline, according to Cinema Blend.
AMC operates two multiplex theaters in Clark County: AMC Vancouver Mall 23 and AMC Mill Plain 8 in east Vancouver. Both are scheduled to reopen Friday, according to their websites.
First up at AMC will be “The War With Grandpa,” a Robert DeNiro comedy. Its release was actually delayed long before the pandemic arrived. “The War With Grandpa” has been bought and sold by different studios and waiting for release since fall 2018.
A statement from AMC lists many more titles to come, along with detailed theater operations and cleaning protocols that were developed with input from the Harvard School of Public Health and Clorox.
Cineworld, which operates Regal Cinemas as well as other theater chains, announced early last week that it was suspending operations at all of its properties in the United States, England and Ireland — a total of 536 theaters in the U.S. and 127 more in Europe. Regal is the second-largest theater chain in the U.S. after AMC, and it operates four locations in Clark County: Regal City Center in downtown Vancouver, Regal Cinema 99 in Hazel Dell, Regal Vancouver Plaza in central Vancouver and Regal Cascade IMAX in east Vancouver.
According to entertainment industry reports, Regal CEO Mooky Greidinger made the move because New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo won’t allow theaters in New York City to reopen their doors, prompting Hollywood studios to hold off on expected blockbuster releases like the latest James Bond thriller, which has been delayed from November 2020 to April 2021.
Greidinger was quoted in The Wall Street Journal saying that a movie theater without new releases is “like a grocery shop that doesn’t have vegetables, fruit, meat.”