For many Houstonians, going to the movies in the Before Times was a semi-weekly ritual, filled with sugary sweet soda, teeth-punishing candy, artery-clogging popcorn, and the latest blockbuster or arthouse triumph. With Covid-19, that ritual has turned into a homebound, mostly streaming, sweatpants-clad, pause-button-friendly experience.
Though indoor theaters are currently permitted to operate with 50-percent or more capacity here in Texas, many in Houston have reopened to scant crowds, staggered seating, and middling product on the big screen—besides director Christopher Nolan’s Tenet there hasn’t been much in the way of big releases. Most of the typical tent-pole studio films have moved into 2021, awaiting a world with a vaccine, or at least a more tenable paid-streaming structure. Some theaters are leaning on classics and cult hits to lure patrons back. Others have had to close locations.
With that in mind, we wondered: How are Houston theaters holding up as we near the end of 2020? And what will movie-watching even look like in 2021? Read on for the current state of Houston's movie hubs.
Drive-in theater pop-ups have become a quaint millennial lark, but the long-term odds and economics aren’t so sound beyond repeated showings of Jurassic Park, Grease, and Your Favorite Wes Anderson Film. The Showboat Drive-In in Hockley, the original drive-in, existed before Covid-19 and will continue to be a niche attraction even after a vaccine is released and becomes common.
Earlier in November, the AMC chain of multiplexes announced it was permanently closing its AMC Studio 30 location on Dunvale, which first opened in late 1997. The chain's lease at the location ran out, and the property owner and AMC parted ways. One of the closest megaplexes near downtown, it was known for sticky floors and rowdy crowds. This location also showed titles from Asia that ex-pats enjoyed seeing stateside. AMC still operates nearly a dozen locations in the greater Houston area, and its remaining auditoriums nationwide are still at 40-percent capacity or less, with masks required at all times unless a patron is eating or drinking. AMC’s eight-screen downtown Houston location (once a beloved Angelika outlet) is struggling along with the rest of its zip code. AMC, for its part, is touting cleaning procedures “advised” by Clorox.
iPic Theaters, which made a splash in late 2015, thanks to its Galleria-area location filled with deluxe seating pods with blankets, pillows, craft cocktails, and gourmet snacks, is only open Thursdays through Sundays, showing mostly holiday hits like Elf and The Santa Clause among other titles.
Edwards Greenway Grand Palace, next door to Lakewood Church, is temporarily closed along with every other Regal property. Hopefully, they will update the star-studded murals inside the theater during the downtime. Brad Pitt is a little more grizzled these days, and divorce has made some of the art a little dated.
Over at the Alamo Drafthouse’s LaCenterra location, the sole Alamo outpost in the Houston area (for now), programming director Robert Saucedo and his team are soldiering on. Closing with the rest of the world on March 17, they opened at the end of August as state restrictions eased.
“The audiences that have visited our theater have really appreciated the new safety protocols that have been put in place,” Saucedo says.
Buffer seats on each side of your seat selection and contactless service have brought patrons back, along with strict mask enforcement, row-by-row exiting procedures, and hospital-grade disinfectants. Alamo has also done brisk business lately with its “Your Own Private Alamo” theater rentals, allowing patrons to rent a screen for their own movie party with new and classic titles to choose from.
Likewise, the Plano-based Cinemark chain has also dipped its toes into the private movie party game, allowing up to 20 people to see a classic film together on their own screen. The list includes holiday classics like Elf, Scrooged, and Gremlins.
“Not only does it feel like a celebrity experience having an entire auditorium for your group, but it also adds that extra layer of comfort for anyone looking to stay within their Covid bubble,” spokesperson Caitlin Piper tells Houstonia. According to Piper, Cinemark has sold more than 50,000 of these private movie parties across the country.
The brand is also touting a 96-percent customer satisfaction rating when it comes to its health and safety protocols. Each Cinemark location now has a "Chief Clean and Safety Monitor" working each shift to monitor cleanliness standards and to adhere to local ordinances.
“The moviegoer is at the heart of everything we do at Cinemark, and there has never been a more important time to listen closely to our customers and make sure we're providing them an immersive theatrical experience in a safe manner,” says CEO Mark Zoradi.
River Oaks Theatre
Generations of Houstonians have memories of midnight showings and arthouse epiphanies at this historic theater, now operated by Landmark. Sadly, the raucous screenings the location is famous for have been put on hold. Thankfully, it's still open, albeit with limited showings, but there's good news still.
For starters, says Margot Gerber, VP of publicity for Landmark, "River Oaks is doing pretty well at a time when across the country, theatrical theaters are struggling. Some other markets have had to close due to an uptick of infection rates."
And you can now re-create your own Rocky Horror experience if you want to, safely. Yes, you can rent out an entire screen to enjoy a flick with your pandemic pod. Gerber says she has heard of a few couples that have rented out a screen to themselves for a special date-night screening as a way to get out off the couch and experience a normal night out again.
So, what will 2021 look like?
A veteran in the movie theater industry, Saucedo expects shorter theatrical windows from when a film premieres in theaters to when it's available to watch at home, with great emphasis on going to the movies as an event. A dine-in theater concept such as the Alamo and the like is built for this.
“People still want to watch movies in theaters, in the same way that people like to go out to eat at restaurants, despite being able to cook at home,” Saucedo says. “Us theaters will need to step up our game in order to convince guests to visit again.”
As 2021 looms, Saucedo says that his chain’s plan is to keep showing films and taking care of guests as best they can until a vaccine is widely available, filling in the gaps around the blockbusters with classic films, indies, and other forms of alternative content.
“I do think big blockbusters will still remain theatrical events for some time. Luckily 2021 will be packed with delayed movies and the films that were originally planned for 2021,” Saucedo says. “Beyond that, we'll continue to innovate and improve our experience, and spend the time figuring out how to make the movie-watching experience an even better one.”