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The lights went down inside theater No. 9 on the upper deck of the AMC Century City 15 at 4:15 p.m. on Monday. A handful of moviegoers were still trickling in as high-octane trailers for Marvel Studios’ Black Widow and Universal’s Nobody played for a seated audience, that, once everyone was settled, topped out at 23.
They were there to see Fox Searchlight’s Nomadland — which scored six Oscar nominations earlier in the day including a history-making nod for director Chloé Zhao — but before the first frame appeared, AMC squeezed in an interstitial to remind guests of important COVID-19 protocols including mask-wearing at all times except when eating or drinking. Then came a final message before the movie started, a bright graphic with bold letters and a voiceover to match that said, “Welcome Back to the Movies.”
The audience responded by doing something typically saved for the final credits (of a worthy film) — they erupted in applause with a handful of guests cheering, “Woo!”
After a yearlong shutdown that devastated the film industry, leveled the exhibition business and caused panic over the future of the theatrical experience, Hollywood is finally back on the big screen on its home turf. AMC Entertainment, the country’s largest chain, opened two of its highest-grossing locations Monday: AMC Century City 15 and AMC Burbank 16, with additional L.A. locations following this weekend. It’s a huge moment for the entertainment business, considering that Los Angeles is the top-grossing moviegoing market in the country.
Effective March 15 — thanks to vaccine distribution and lowered COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations — L.A. County moved into the “red tier,” which allows for movie theaters, gyms, fitness centers and museums to open at reduced capacity along with indoor dining at restaurants. Capacity at theaters is capped at 25 percent.
The majority of Monday’s screenings at AMC Century City were sold out as moviegoers flocked to the theater to experience the multiplex for the first time in more than a year. Burbank saw solid business and star sightings — Tenet filmmaker Christopher Nolan was spotted inside — while AMC Century City hosted Boogie director Eddie Huang.
One of the guests seated and applauding during Nomadland was Brannen Haderle. “Excited doesn’t cover how I’m feeling right now,” he said near the ticket check-in, a dark bandana covering what surely was a wide smile. “Not only am I feeling reinspired, but I’m absolutely invigorated to be back.”
He said that even after being admonished seconds earlier by an AMC staffer to put on a different mask. Haderle’s bandana didn’t meet AMC Safe & Clean guidelines that require guests to wear a mask that fully covers the nose and mouth, fits closely over cheeks and chin, and is secured by ear loops or ties. The protocols also call for cashless transactions, hand sanitizers and wipes throughout the building, refills and condiments by request and advance ordering options for concessions, among others.
Haderle quickly ran to his car to grab a backup that passed muster but before doing so, he opened up more on why he turned out for the first screening on opening day. “I just graduated film school, so it was tough to spend the first year or year and a half without being able to go to the movies. I’m happy to see films that were meant for the big screen on the big screen,” he said, adding that his presence should serve as a statement to the box office. “It’s important to show theaters that we’re back and we’re ready to buy tickets. We’re here, and we’re going to be here.”
He’ll make good on his own words by going to see a movie per day this week. “That’s the goal,” he said.
The industry will be watching closely as word continues to spread that L.A. is open for business. Not everyone had gotten the message. Before AMC Century City staff unlocked the front doors shortly after 3:30 p.m., waves of shoppers kept strolling by to tug at them, wondering if and when the theaters would reopen. “I saw people over here but wasn’t sure if it’s this week or next week?” said one male shopper. “I’ll definitely come back this weekend.”
A family of three — Lisa and husband Steve with 11-year-old daughter Lucy (who requested to be identified by first names) — also arrived before doors were unlocked, but they came prepared with digital tickets in hand to see Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon. “It feels good,” Lisa said. “I’m really excited about the popcorn, to enjoy a movie as a family and to be around other people, to not feel so isolated.”
She said they typically saw two movies per month before the pandemic shut down theaters nationwide in March 2020. “It feels like we’re being let out of a little cave. It gives us hope that change is coming and it will be back to normal soon, especially for my daughter,” she continued. “It’s been the hardest for her, being inside all day on Zoom with no [in-person] school. Trying to find any activity for 11-year-old kids has been really difficult, so we’re thrilled to be able to do something.”
Lisa added that she’s “pretty comfortable” with the in-person moviegoing experience and is confident in AMC’s COVID-19 protocols. “I’m not really that nervous.” Per public health guidelines, theaters are allowed to operate at 25 percent capacity or 100 guests, whichever is fewer. For some auditoriums at AMC, that can mean seating up to 40 percent capacity, per the chain’s website. Reserved seats are required and the ticket technology automatically blocks out adjacent seats after a guest has selected a seat in order to accommodate social distancing.
Lots of COVID-19 safety signage and sanitizer, wipes placed throughout. Concessions are cashless and everything is running smoothly thus far. pic.twitter.com/PFMZ519dRa
— Chris Gardner (@chrissgardner) March 15, 2021
Also falling into the “not nervous” category was Judy Reidel. A retired film editor, who said she is “over 65 and totally vaccinated,” came with partner Alan to see Raya and the Last Dragon. “I’ve been waiting to go to the movies,” she said, adding that while L.A. theaters were closed, she twice drove to Orange County during the pandemic to catch a movie when restrictions were more relaxed there. “I used to go to several movies every week, normally, and I miss them. I had to watch them on TV or cast them from my phone.”
Alan added that they subscribed to “every single one” of the streaming platforms to keep up with the latest new movies, but nothing can replace the in-person experience. “It’s a celebration of doing the things we love to do,” Reidel noted. And they love to make a night of it. “We’re going to watch a wonderful movie and then go out to dinner.”
Also taking in an animated movie was Candice Grey, 35, who arrived at AMC with her daughter, their neighbor, Yanik Camarillo, 40, and her child. While picking out their seats to see DreamWorks/Universal’s The Croods: A New Age, Grey explained that she never wanted movie theaters to close in the first place. “I despised it the whole time,” she said. “We both work in industries that were open the entire time during the pandemic so that makes it easier [to come out], but we know that in reality, the world can’t be ‘stopped’ for too long. I’m ecstatic and very grateful they made it through the pandemic.”
Like Haderle, Grey said that showing up straight out of the gate is a signal of how much she loves movies, but it’s also a statement. “There have been people who have lost their lives during the pandemic and that’s very sad. But I do believe that no matter what, Jesus knows my beginning and ending date. If I were to die from the pandemic, that is also sad. But I’m happy to be here. I’m all for it.”
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