Whiffs of fake butter, first dates, junior mints and big gulps fill the isles of empty movie theaters. It’s clear the world has been missing the nostalgic experience of an outing to the movies.
When the world hit the pause button in 2020, movie theaters were included in the long list of businesses which had to shut down.
“We went into the weekend of March 13 planning on scaling it back, deciding to do 50% capacity on our own,” said Joe Sheehan manager at the Magic Lantern Theatre. “Information was coming out every few hours on new things getting shut down, and within a few days we were told we had to close.”
Like many other businesses, it thought its shutdown would only last a few weeks.
Last Friday was the Magic Lantern’s first day opening new films. It’s currently showing “Nomadland” and “Minari” and have a couple other films lined up for the next few weeks.
“We don’t really know what to expect,” Sheehan said. “We have a decent word of mouth and a lot of people have expressed excitement to come back now that we’ve announced that we’re reopening.”
Until recently, it was difficult for them to get all the moving parts of the theatre running again due to the limited content available and major equipment such as their projector needing to be replaced. The small theatre has two screens. One seats 100 and the other seats 33 so it will be limited to 50 in the large theater and 16 in the smaller one. Their COVID-19 precautions consist of limiting capacity to 50%, requiring masks, having accessible hand sanitizer and wiping down chairs and armrests between shows.
To adapt business to the restrictions of the pandemic, it turned to offering rentals where a small group could have an entire screening to themselves for $99. It has always offered rentals, but put more energy toward this service when it saw that other theaters, even larger ones such as AMCs, around the state were offering similar deals.
The Magic Lantern Theatre opened in 1971 and has been in its current location since 2007 when the Saranac Commons building opened. It plays a unique variety of independent films, documentaries, foreign films and art house movies and is the only first run theater that sells beer and wine.
“For anybody interested in film and stuff outside of the mainstream, we’re often going to be the only place you can see some of the movies that we’re showing,” Sheehan said.
A connecting business in the Spokane community, Magic Lantern Theatre also works with local production companies and does community events.
“We have a lot of partnerships with community organizations that have their own messaging, campaigning and fundraising ideas and we’re sort of a tool for them in a lot of ways,” Sheehan said.
The question of if people will still go to the movies post pandemic is the elephant in the room. The pandemic has accelerated the process of transitioning to in-home streaming services.
“I don’t think people are going to stop going to the movies,” Sheehan said. “I still think going to the movies is a communal experience and there’s a social element to it that people will crave.”
Theatres are also in a unique position where the audience doesn’t have to sign up for an entirely new streaming service just to watch a specific movie they’re interested in. Viewers can simply go watch it at the theatre without the monthly fee, slimy deals and pestering emails of streaming services.
“I think in a lot of ways it’s the multiplexes that are going to change the most because I don’t know that there’s enough movies to sustain the 20 screen theaters,” Sheehan said. “For us, we’re a little boutique art house experience and we’re not necessarily competing with or going to affect the Netflix’s or the AMC’s of the world.”
Many Gonzaga students missed the option to casually take a trip to the movies.
“Last weekend my friends and I went to the AMC in the mall and we were so happy to set foot inside a movie theater since we hadn’t been to one in over a year,” freshman Mary Kate Hoglund said. “I felt comfortable doing so because everyone was spaced out with COVID precautions and there were only two other people in the movie theater since we went later at night. It was such a nostalgic feeling to sit in the comfy recliner chair with the smell of popcorn and candy in the air.”
GU’s SpikeNites is working to bring back the experience of going to the movies for the student population. They ran one movie night at the beginning of last semester while the weather was still warm, and another was held on Saturday.
“We wanted to provide a safe space outside for students to come and hang out together socially distanced,” said Program Coordinator for Center of Student Involvement, Michaela Johnson.
Students were required to wear masks for the entire duration of the event, and were sat in pods of five, socially distanced. The event was able to host 400 students safely on Herak Lawn.
“In the fall we had a large turnout due to students craving the opportunity to do some sort of activity with their friends in a safe environment,” Johnson said. “We were happy to provide an event like this that many were grateful to be able to attend.”
Fifty-eight students attended the most recent movie night on Saturday which was not as big of a turnout as the previous movie night.
Even with the transforming movie landscape, the post movie theatre feeling of a blinding reentrance into the real world after the credits roll by and popcorn rolls out of every fold of your clothing, is unmatchable.