SOUTH JORDAN — I walked into the Megaplex Theatres at the District in South Jordan on a recent Saturday night to feel a sense of normalcy. A waft of popcorn, salt and butter crashed on me like a wave. It was a smell I had not experienced since March.
I stood in the lobby and looked around to see a closed food court, normally bustling with hustling employees cooking meals. A “Mulan” poster hung on the back wall like a framed painting in a haunted house. The rolling audio of upcoming movie trailers lingered about like haunting memories of what once was, and what is to come, all at once.
A touch of sadness filled me. I’m not ready to see a movie in a theater yet. And I probably won’t until the pandemic ends, or until there’s a vaccine. But standing there — in an empty lobby that would normally be bustling with the electric energy of a Saturday night — it made me wonder if Megaplex, which opened its doors during the pandemic, has found any success with its decision to reopen early — ahead of the major players.
So I spoke with Blake Andersen, Megaplex Theatres president, in a phone interview about the movie theater and how its experiment to reopen during the pandemic has gone. And so far, Andersen had nothing but praise for how his theater chain has responded during the pandemic. But he admitted it’s still a long way from normal.
Megaplex announced it would reopen on June 18, which I wrote about for the Deseret News. The theater said it would only show a number of older films. Face masks weren’t required but encouraged. And the theater promoted social distancing, constant hand hygiene and sanitation.
So far, it’s worked, Andersen said. There have been no reports back to the theater about potential COVID-19 cases.
“Absolutely none of that,” he said, “which has just been just so wonderful and a testament to the job the team is doing, the sanitization procedures we’ve put in place.”
So what is it like going to the theater? It’s hands-free, if you want it to be. You can walk into the theater, pick your seat and buy your ticket on an app, scan the app and walk right to your theater. You have to wear a mask — specifically if you’re going to see a movie in Salt Lake County, where there is a mask mandate. If you don’t have one, Megaplex provides one. You can take it off when you eat or drink. Otherwise, mask up.
There’s a mix of films to see. You can watch a classic like “Jaws” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Maybe see a relatively recent film, like “Interstellar.” Or even a new release, like “The Rental” — a horror film that recently dropped amid the pandemic. Families have brought their children to the theaters to see some of these classics again, Andersen said.
The theater creates a wide perimeter for you to stay socially distanced. When you pick your seat, the theater won’t let you sit within 6 feet of anyone else. The theater blocks out every other row, too. And Megaplex only allows 50 people into an auditorium. Normally, they seat 300 to 500 people.
Megaplex has also increased its ventilation and filtering procedures, Andersen said. The system was already “incredible” before, he said, but the team worked to “increase ventilation and increase filtration, so that you know it’s even better than it was before.”
Andersen said he has received letters every day or two from people thanking the theater for putting its procedures in place. He said one guy wrote a letter that he had never been to Megaplex before all of these changes. Now, he has come three days in a row.
Financially, Megaplex is awaiting Hollywood blockbusters like “Tenet” to drive traffic to theaters. Megaplex isn’t immune to the loss of revenue. The theater — though running classics and hosting private events still — is meant to host big films, Andersen said.
“Our theaters were built and designed for the big blockbusters,” Andersen said. “So we love that. We need that. I think that’s what we’re all looking forward to.”
The theater doesn’t have a fully operating food court. There aren’t a lot of new movies. The weekend box office numbers are low. But Andersen said there are ways to mitigate the financial losses. And the theater has done that, relative to other national chains. Megaplex recently topped the Hollywood box office for the entire country — a sign that there’s still something of an appetite to see movies again. The theater had the highest grossing numbers of any “hard top multiplexes” at the end of June, according to Deadline,
Andersen said the national success has shown two things: “Utahns have always loved going to the theater and seeing movies” and Utah moviegoers “were confident that Megaplex Theatres would do it right.”
Megaplex has found some financial returns from its private showings. Megaplex started allowing guests to rent out the entire theater for 20 or so people for $375 and watch any movie you want. Cinemark has since jumped on this idea as well. Megaplex provides the movie, the popcorn and the soda for a fee. In fact, Andersen said some people booked to watch the upcoming Utah Jazz games in the theaters, too.
Of course, the same isn’t true for every movie theater. AMC, Cinemark and Regal have pushed back their reopenings to coincide with the release of “Tenet” — a film that was going to be the first major blockbuster release of the 2020 summer but has since been delayed to at least the fall. Most theaters need the steady flow of revenue to remain open. John Fithian, president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Theatre Owners, said a complete shutdown could ruin the entire industry if it lasts too long.
“If the answer is, ‘We’re going to wait until 100% of theaters are open,’ we’re not going to be there until a year from now when there’s a vaccine,” Fithian said. “This is existential for the movie theater industry. If we go a year without new movies, it’s over.”
For Megaplex, having a private and local owner helped the theater make decisions faster, giving it a chance to reopen before the major blockbusters hit.
Still, the theater awaits normalcy to return. Much like how I felt during that walk into the theater on Saturday night, Megaplex hopes to see the hustle and bustle of a Saturday night. It hopes the packed theaters return. Though it has seen success so far, Megaplex awaits the complete return to what once was.
“We’re ready and excited to get out and to be able to escape this nightmare we’ve all been living in for the past few months,” he said. “We worked tirelessly to make sure that when we invited people back into our theaters, we could be sure that they would be as safe as they would be in their own living room.”